The Sunday Mail
Munyaradzi Gwisai, Frank Hwenhira and Briggs Zano
Under cover of the public outcry against the obscene salaries of the parastatal and State enterprise bosses, the Finance Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, announced a raft of proposed changes to the labour laws of this country that will have far-reaching and disastrous effects on ordinary people.
Indeed a return to the dark days of colonial primitive accumulation or chibharo. The changes seek to achieve a “low wage, high productivity” paradigm, and are inspired by the Chinese rampant free-market model.
The proposed labour law reforms are a massive leap backwards.
The basic reasons being put forward by employers for labour reform and reflected in Minister Chinamasa’s proposed changes are as follows:
High labour costs not linked to productivity.
Need for productivity-linked wages as opposed to mandatory industry-wide minimum wages.
Need for labour flexibility, in particular in contracts, on working hours and dismissal laws.
Costly and rigid retrenchment and dismissal laws, supposedly over-protecting workers and stifling business competitiveness.
Unrealistic, and costly arbitral awards and a cumbersome arbitral system.
To achieve the above would, in fact, mean not only an amendment of the current labour laws but a total frontal attack if not destruction of these laws, in particular the Labour Act (Chapter 28:01) as well as provisions of the new Constitution providing for labour and administrative justice, in particular Section 65.
This is because the underlying central objective of the proposed labour law reforms is for the bosses and capitalists to get out of the current growing economic crisis and drive economic recovery through cheap, super-exploited and oppressed labour.
This in a manner hardly dissimilar to the semi-slave labour laws – chibharo – of Rhodesia. But most of these were removed by the progressive post-colonial government in the first two decades of independence in legislation such as the Employment Act of 1980, the Minimum Wages Act, 1980, and the Labour Relations Act of 1985.
The Labour Relations Amendment Act of 2002 took this to an even higher plane. All this now stands to be swept away.
It is bosses “earning” obscene salaries
Firstly, wages linked to productivity means doing away with Part X of the Labour Act, in particular Section 82 which makes registered industrial collective bargaining agreements providing for minimum wages apply to all employees in an industry including contract workers.
This will be replaced by wages set at works councils or in the individual contract of employment.
Another dimension is that workers will generally be paid on a piece work basis – mugwazo – rather than on weekly or monthly basis. If there is no electricity or no orders, they do not get paid.
This kind of practice is already being followed on many of the new farms where workers are paid a dollar for weeding a line – mugwazo.
The above would violate Section 65 of the new Constitution providing for workers’ rights to fair labour standards, fair remuneration and just working conditions.
How can we say that “high wages” are the problem when over three quarters of Zimbabwean workers earn less than half of the Poverty Datum Line?
Is the problem not the thieving bosses and their recently exposed obscene salaries and allowances?
Secondly, labour flexibility requires repeal of most provisions of Part IV of the Labour Act providing for protection of employees from unfair dismissal, unfair retrenchment, prohibition of casualisation of labour and for decent working hours, sick leave and vacation leave.
Employers seek the destruction of permanent and unionised labour and its substitution by casualised and non-unionised workers, working long hours on cheap wages and without pensions or social security just as it was before 1980.
Finally the removal of provisions on protection of workers from unfair dismissal and retrenchment means restoring the arbitrary power that employees had under the colonial Master and Servant Act to hire, fire and retrench at will. On retrenchment, workers will get a week’s wage for every year worked as in South Africa, instead of the current practice of at least one month.
Employees will now be treated as nothing more than items and chattels or a skirt or shirt to be put on and off and thrown away after use.
Women workers will be particularly vulnerable to marauding bosses and sexual harassment.
Under this scenario, workers will be too terrified to join trade unions, reducing the right to organise, to join unions and collective bargaining under the new Constitution to an empty useless right.
They want a juice-card economy and workforce!
If the above looks like a doomsday scenario, one just has to look at the sweat-shops of Bangladesh and China to see what is coming our way.
Indeed, already many of these practices are rampant on the new farms run by the emerging black commercial farmers. Some giant corporations, especially in the telecommunications sector and who are in partnership with Chinese multinationals, already practise the same, but on a more sophisticated basis. They refuse to be part of the industry National Employment Council (NEC), employ an army of non-unionised contract workers and casualised juice-card sellers, in what Tendai Biti cynically called the “juice-card economy.”
They punish workers for belonging to unions, impose daily prayers at work and reward workers who follow them to the charlatan charismatic Pentecostal prophets!
The idea now is to extend the above policies to the entire working class. The net effect is the return of primitive accumulation as it was at the inception of colonialism. The reforms are not only an assault upon the worker’s rights but an unmitigated molestation of the new Constitution. What is striking is that these policies are being pursued by a new Government whose policies are ostensibly based on an agenda of economic empowerment and nationalism.
Yet the labour reforms announced mark an acceleration of the neo-liberal policies of Chinamasa’s predecessor, the MDC-T’s Biti and his infamous “we eat what we kill” policy.
The very policies that effectively cost the MDC-T the last election!
Now in total control of the legislature and executive arms of the State, surprisingly, the Zanu-PF Government wants to intensify such policies by this naked and brazen attack on the working class. Even more surprising is that this is happening when there is a threatening economic meltdown which has unleashed cannibalism and civil war amongst elites.
And at the same time, the masses hungrier, and angry with the exposed corruption of society’s elites, are beginning to stir in a manner we have not seen for over a decade.
Workers need to unite
The ball now lies in the hands of conscious workers and organised labour. We are at a crucial moment.
Workers and trade unions leaders should rise above their justified past differences or their political party affiliations to urgently establish a united front to conscientise workers on these labour reforms.
Munyaradzi Gwisai – Faculty of Law, University of Zimbabwe. Frank Hwenhira, Briggs Zano – Working People’s College.