Monday, March 24, 2014

Zimbabwe Labor Act Review Sparks Debate

Labour Act review sparks debate

Sunday, 23 March 2014 00:00
Zakeyo Mutimutema

The Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Honourable Patrick Chinamasa, is at it again, joining hands with the so- called industrialists, consultants and employment councils to advocate neo-liberal policies.

On 20 March 2014, the minister was quoted in a number of newspapers advocating to change the labour laws of the country to allow employers to hire and fire workers willy-nilly, retrench workers by paying peanuts, cutting workers’ benefits, dealing with labour arbitrators and dealing with working hours, etc.

This is not the first time such calls have been made in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans must remember what happened during the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) in the 1990s where similar calls were made and the labour laws were changed under the guise of economic growth and employment creation.

For the benefit of the proponents of labour market flexibility, which is a concept borrowed from the West whom the Government demonises at will, please be reminded that at the heart of resolving world peace after the outbreak of World War I, labour protection was part of the issue that was on the table to end slavery that had caused misery the world over. There was a realisation that social justice and peace would not be achieved if there was no labour justice and peace.

This culminated in the formation of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1919.

At its inception the ILO observed that “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice, and whereas conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required . . .

“Whereas also the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries”

In 1944 the ILO adopted the Philadelphia Declaration in which member states affirmed that there will be no return to slavery and suppression of labour.

The declaration stated that “Labour is Not a Commodity”, freedom of expression and association are essential to sustained progress, and that poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere.

Since then the ILO has been setting labour standards through the participation of governments, trade unions and employers’ organisations.

These international labour standards are the sources of our labour legislation.

Zimbabwe is a member of the ILO and is bound by the ILO Constitution and all international conventions, declarations, and recommendations that are made at international level.

Now, for certain groups to advocate flexibility to hire and fire workers is inciting the country to breach its international labour obligations which advocate humane conditions and the promotion of freedom of association and collective bargaining, among other international standards.

Turning to our own struggle, during the colonial era, the Master and Servant Ordinance of 1901 was put in place granting the capitalist-colonisers all the power to hire and fire and do what they deemed fit to the natives. The workers’ struggle for workplace justice, equity and non-discrimination became part and parcel of the liberation struggle.

In 1980, the Zanu-PF Government intervened in the labour market by adopting a number of policies to promote and protect the workers. It enacted the Labour Relations Act No. 16 of 1985 which protected workers.

However, in the 1990s the Zanu-PF-led Government accepted a concoction from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to implement labour market flexibility.

It was argued that the labour laws are rigid; they hinder productivity and company competitiveness.

It was also said the economy will grow tremendously and employment will increase.

However, by his own admission, His Excellency, President Robert Mugabe, admitted at the burial of the late Vice- President Dr Joshua Nkomo, that the concoction had not worked and his government was deceived.

The same concoction is now being prescribed by the so-called industrialists, consultants and our Honourable Minister Chinamasa.

My question is, Honourable Minister, what is the difference between the 1990 concoction and the current labour law changes you are championing?

The concoction now looks nice because it is prescribed by a black person. Who said firing a worker without a reasonable package will increase economic growth? Or promoting casualisation of workers stimulates economic growth?.

This is wrong advice, Honourable Minister. There is a tendency in this country of running away from the truth or prescribing medicine for an ailment without proper diagnosis.

The “salarygate” scandal was approved by Government and those people cannot be fired because it is contractual. Though I don’t condone the mega salaries paid, at law there is no case if the employer approved the salaries. If it was an illegal act, why is the Government not firing them?

Linking wages to productivity while the same workers do not control the other means of production is a wrong prescription.

Production has a lot of variables of which one is labour. What are the industrialists and the Government doing with the rotten equipment left by Rhodes which has outlived its lifespan?

How much capital is being injected into the economy to stimulate growth? Where and how are the raw materials procured? Who decides the managerial team and style? What formula will be used to ascertain the contribution of each worker in the production process?

The productivity-linked wages issue was resolved way back in 1944 in Philadelphia when it was agreed that “Labour is not a commodity”. You can do what you want with a commodity but you cannot relate the same to a human being.

Changing working conditions and wages anytime you feel comfortable under the guise of promoting economic growth and company competitiveness is inhumane.

How come a liberation movement like Zanu-PF wants to advocate the suppression of workers it claims it liberated? In Zim Asset, it advocates employment-creation but at the same time advocates labour market flexibility.

How can you create employment and at the same time refuse to protect the same jobs you have created? These two concepts are parallel; you cannot have both.

The advocates of flexibility and productivity-linked wages must know that in 2013, Zimbabwe adopted a new Constitution.
Section 24 of the Constitution provides as follows: “The State and all institutions and agencies of government at every level must adopt reasonable policies and measures, within the limits of the resources available to them, to provide everyone with an opportunity to work in a freely chosen activity, in order to secure a decent living for themselves and their families.

“The State and all institutions and agencies of government at every level must endeavour to secure full employment; the removal of restrictions that unnecessarily inhibit or prevent people from working and otherwise engaging in gainful economic activities”.

Is this Government going to achieve full employment, decent living by hiring and firing workers and paying peanuts and retrenching without packages and turning collective bargaining into directives?

More importantly, Section 65 (1) of the Constitution provides that “every person has the right to fair and safe labour practices and standards and to be paid a fair and reasonable wage”.

Labour market flexibility is contrary to this provision, because it encourages non- payment of fair and reasonable wages, it sets out poor labour standards and more unsafe work.

Furthermore, section 34 of the Constitution provides that “the State must ensure that all international conventions, treaties and agreements to which Zimbabwe is a party are incorporated into domestic law.

My view, which I know will be supported by reasonable, fair-minded and sober-minded people, is that labour legislative reform must be undertaken to comply with the Constitution and international treaties or conventions to which Zimbabwe is a party.

More so the country adopted the Decent Work Country Programme for 2012-2015, which prioritises the following four areas: Promoting productive employment and decent jobs, improving the application and implementation of international labour standards, strengthening social dialogue capacities and processes for sustainable socio-economic development and increasing the coverage of social protection. Before this is achieved, another policy on relaxing labour laws, which is opposed to the decent work agenda, has emerged. This policy is inconsistent on the part of Government.

The reforms being incited by the industrialists do not conform to the dictates of our Constitution and our international obligations but will take us into slavery.

According to the ILO’s international research and monitoring mechanisms of economies of the world, there is little evidence to support the myth that labour law flexibility improves economic performance and creates employment. The ILO observed that protective legislation increases labour market stability and workers’ security, possibly mitigating social conflict. (ILO, 2012). The minimum wage has also been shown to be an effective policy tool for reducing wage inequality and poverty (see Eyraud and Saget, 2005).

All those clamouring to relax labour laws are missing the point or lack an appreciation of how the labour system functions.

The primary function of any labour legislation is to regulate the inequality of the bargaining power inherent in employment.

The law must support the weak party and ensure justice. Our labour law allows employers to retrench subject to following due processes.

The problem is that these advocates want a short cut as they do not want to comply with the law and are only interested in retrenching without a just cause.

The Way Forward

There is no best way forward other than that the monetary, fiscal, social, economic, labour, gender and environmental policies are geared towards the objective of reducing inequality, strengthening democracy in society and in the workplace, provide income security and employment opportunities.

Government must regain fiscal space through a solid tax base. If employment is unpredictable and companies are allowed to hire and fire, Government will also lose revenue and its budget targets will not be realised. Those losing jobs will look up to the same Government for support, thereby creating a dependency syndrome.

Labour reforms must conform with the new Constitution and international labour standards, instead of taking us back to slavery.

Zakeyo Mutimutema is a labour law expert and advisor to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.

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