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Cry beloved Zimbabwean labourer

It is somewhat ironic that labour unionisation has been one of the biggest casualties of Zimbabwe’s economic decline spanning a d...

Tired workers ... Less than 20% Zimbabweans are formally employed.

It is somewhat ironic that labour unionisation has been one of the biggest casualties of Zimbabwe’s economic decline spanning a decade and a half. This has also had important ramifications in the political equation in the country.

More ironic however, is that probably the biggest beneficiary of labour’s collapse is the ruling party, Zanu PF, whose main opposition, the MDC, had its roots and strongest backing in the labour unions. The decline of labour has happened not because of Zanu PF’s deliberately calculated machinations, but quite simply because of its complete and utter failure to manage the country’s economy. In killing the economy, they have also weakened their main source of opposition.

There was a time when the unions were a force to reckon with in the Zimbabwean body politic. A call for a general strike or a job stay-away by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union (ZCTU), the main umbrella body of labour unions, would sent shivers throughout the political establishment.

Back in 1998, the mass stay-away and food riots that erupted in Harare and other cities signalled heightened political pressure on the government. The economy was in sharp decline, goods and services were getting more expensive and the ZCTU became the main agency through which Zimbabweans expressed their umbrage.

It was the ZCTU that became the chief mid-wife at the birth of the then new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). It provided the nucleus of the leadership, the membership and the structures around which the new party was constructed. Although many other constituencies were part of the bandwagon, the MDC was at heart, a labour-based party. Its leader Morgan Tsvangirai was the former Secretary General of the ZCTU, with his deputy, Gibson Sibanda having been President of the same body. Many of the union leaders joined the fray.

Over the years, there was a strong relationship between the MDC and the ZCTU and labour unions generally. It was a point of strength, but as events over the years have demonstrated, it was also a point of weakness.

Zanu PF and the ZCTU were not always hostile to each other, no. When the ZCTU was formed in 1981, amalgamating the various labour unions that existed before independence, it was closely linked to Zanu PF. Its initial leadership was drawn from Zanu PF. In fact, its first leader, Albert Mugabe, was the then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe’s younger brother.

The link between the ruling party and the labour unions reflected the spirit of the time and the history of the labour unions in the struggle for liberation. The unions had formed the beginnings of modern nationalist politics. Indeed, the prominent figures of the 50s and 60s, like Charles Mzingeli, Benjamin Burombo and Joshua Nkomo, were some of the key leaders of the unions that fought for rights of African workers in the colonial set-up. Nkomo later rose to lead the nationalist movement which prosecuted the liberation struggle.

Thus the relationship between labour and the political establishment at independence reflected the connection from the past. Soon however, the labour unions sought independence and by the end of the first decade of independence, the relationship had ruptured. The labour unions became critical of the government and opposed the efforts of the ruling party to establish a One-Party state. When government abandoned the plan for One-Party government, they introduced economic reforms under an economic programme championed by the Bretton-Woods institutions.

ESAP, as the economic structural adjustment programme was commonly referred to, was vehemently resisted by the unions. It’s premise was economic liberalisation and deregulation, neo-liberal reforms entailing the retreat of the state and the promotion of market forces in the economy. Government had to cut back on provision of social services. There had to be retrenchment of employees, both in the public and private sectors. Naturally, this would impact on workers. The unions fought these reforms, which were not helped by the proliferation of corruption in the public sector. While government urged workers to tighten their belts, politicians and politically-connected persons were getting wealthier. This caused outrage and these challenges were the background to the formation of the MDC.

Government understood the power of the unions. Then employment levels were high – well above 50% – workers could easily be mobilised. It would have been foolhardy for government to ignore the unions. The result was that government generally responded to workers’ demands. Government still addressed workers on May Day, even in that atmosphere of mistrust. In any event, it still pretended to follow socialist ideology and therefore purported to represent workers.

Meanwhile, after facing stiff opposition after 1999, the ruling party stuffed the civil service with its supporters. Many youths trained as part of a partisan youth service programme found their way into the army, the prisons, police and other state institutions and bodies. Corruption also meant there were thousands of non-existent workers (ghost workers) on the government payroll.

Nevertheless, after 2000, when government embarked on the land reform programme, which was violent and chaotic, the effects were disastrous for the economy and ultimately for the labour unions. The invasion and takeover of commercial farmers resulted in the decimation of labour in the farming areas. Agriculture was probably the biggest employer in the country. The collapse of commercial agriculture dealt a blow to the unions too, as they lost a large chunk of their members.

Worse was to come though, when the economic crisis began to eat into industry. Businesses closed down in the major cities, leaving empty shells. The rate of unemployment rose. Now less than 20 per cent Zimbabweans are in formal employment. The remaining 80 per cent are either doing nothing or vending in the streets – selling anything in order to survive. Both the middle and working classes are in limbo.

But the decline in the national labour force has also impacted heavily and negatively, on the labour unions. Unions are organised around workers, against the power of capital. In other words, unions depend on the existence of formal and organised business. That is the source of the membership and also the source of their funds for survival. With fewer workers, means less members around which to organise the unions. With less members, it also means less remittances in contributions to fund operations. Consequently, labour unions are weakened.

It’s not surprising that the labour unions have generally been weaker in recent years, consistent with the economic decline. Of course, politics also robbed the ZCTU of its biggest talents when many of the union leadership moved into politics. Years of experience gained in the unions was lost to politics. Then there was the in-fighting within the ZCTU, leading to an acrimonious split, reminiscent of developments in the MDC, with which they were closely connected.

It is interesting that the decline in fortunes of the labour unions have to some degree mirrored the decline in fortunes of the opposition movement in the country. This is not to say there is any co-relation between the two, but the similarities are quite uncanny. But what is noticeable is that the labour unions are suffering the effects of the economic decline, largely because business closures simply mean less workers and therefore fewer persons around which to organise labour unions.
Now, with employers’ power to fire workers on notice having been confirmed by the courts, employers are in a stronger position to dictate terms and fewer workers will have the courage to unionise and risk upsetting their employers. This could add another nail in the coffin of labour unions, as workers retreat from unionisation.

The informalisation of the economy has converted all workers into business people and mini-owners of capital. Most people have joined the hordes of vendors around the country. Some even boast of being employers. None of these people can afford to go on strike or to stay-away because such action will only affect their informal businesses. Their very livelihood is inextricably tied to their informal businesses. In this zone, unions do not have space. Hence in place of labour unions, there are now vendors’ unions, each representing the interests and rights of vendors and not workers.

It is in this state of the economy that labour has lost its lustre. The most prominent unions are those based around civil servants – teachers, nurses and doctors. But even these are also under threat as the government moves to cut down on an admittedly bloated civil service. More than 80% of government’s monthly expenditure goes to civil servants’ wages. It’s obviously unsustainable. The Finance Minister announced in his Mid-Term Fiscal Review last week that government wants to cut it down by half to 40% and that this would require entrenchment. But a few days later, both the Labour Minister and the Vice President insisted that government would not retrench but would find other ways to reduce costs. It’s hard to think of the magic formula they have apart from retrenchment.

Then again, the ruling party always tries to appease, even if the appeasement has disastrous consequences. When in April this year, the Finance Minister announced the cancellation of civil servants bonuses, he received severe admonishment from the President, who immediately declared that bonuses would be paid. Unfortunately for the Finance Minister, he did not say where the funds for bonuses would come from. But this is the kind of voodoo economics that have weighed down upon the country for the past three decades.  As I said at the beginning, the economic declined has decimated labour unions but the irony is that the biggest beneficiary of all this is the bunging and clueless ruling party, because with weak labour, it simply means they have one less organised force to deal with. -

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