TOMORROW’S Workers Day commemorations will be a celebration with a difference for Lorraine Mapfumo, a nurse, as for the first time in many years she feels she has something to rejoice about after her employer earlier this year started paying her in hard currency.
Mapfumo, like many workers in Zimbabwe, has for the past three months managed to put food on her table and provide basic needs for her family using her US$100 allowance, something she could not do during the time the local currency was the sole legal tender.
“What I am earning now might not be much but at least I can now buy groceries and afford to commute to work daily,” Mapfumo said.
Government and most companies in the private sector started paying workers in foreign currency in January after the “multi-currencying” of the national payment system.
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the country’s largest labour body, though accused by many workers of abandoning them in pursuit of opposition political agendas, says it has been at the forefront demanding the payment of wages in hard currency.
The ZCTU, which used to represent 300 000 members in the early 1990s before the economy took a dip, has been accused of dabbling in MDC-T politics at the expense of workers.
Lovemore Matombo, the ZCTU president, defended the union saying workers should be reminded on May Day about the role of trade unions.
Â “Universally, the role of trade unionism is to protect and defend the interests of the workers and this is what we have been doing here in Zimbabwe,” Matombo said. “If we appear to be involved in political issues it is because these issues are part and parcel of the everyday lives of workers as our members have a right to take part in the democratisation of the country.”
Matombo gave examples of Zambia, Ghana and Kenya where labour movements contributed in the democratisation processes in those countries.
Labour unions have over centuries acted as countervailing forces in countries where there were weak opposition parties.
Matombo said this year’s Workers Day celebrations were special as the country’s largest labour union survived the political crisis in the country, which saw its leaders arrested and tortured.
Â “We have withstood the political pressure from Zanu PF which arrested and tortured our leaders and activists while they were taking part in the democratisation of the nation,” he said.
Matambo accused the government of creating discordant labour organisations as a means of destroying trade unionism in the country.
Currently, the ZCTU is embroiled in a fight with employers on the minimum salary the least paid worker in any industry should be paid. The union is pushing for US$450 monthly.
According to statistics from the ZCTU, Zimbabweans are the least paid in the region and yet the country is the most expensive place in the Sadc region.
The current poverty datum line is US$450 yet many employers are paying salaries even below US$100.
He said: “We have problems with companies, including the government, who are paying their workers part of their salaries in local currency as the money cannot be used anywhere.”
Parastatals like Zesa, National Railways of Zimbabwe, TelOne and the Harare City Council have come under attack from labour groups, including the ZCTU, for slashing their workers’ salaries.Â Â
Employers Confederation of Zimbabwe director, John Mufukare, said this year’s May Day celebrations come at a time when workers and employers are celebrating a new beginning after the formation of the unity government.
Mufukare said industry welcomed the formation of the inclusive government with cautious optimism as there were still a “lot of clouds hanging” over the global political agreement.
“What we are celebrating is hope. Finally, we can start rebuilding the country and the economy in a sustainable manner,” said Mufukare.
The Emcoz director said the dollarisation of the economy has improved the lives of many workers who can now afford to feed their families.
“With dollarisation, people can at least put food on the table although the quantum of remuneration is not enough for people to live lavishly,” Mufukare said.
He said that employers were facing serious challenges regarding the amount they could pay workers and can only pay a living wage provided there is a substantial increase in production.Â The ZCTU and other civil organisations last year adopted a people’s charter aimed at improving the lives of workers. The charter, among other things, advocates for decent work, employment and the right to earn a living for all.
The charter called for fair labour standards which include a tax-free minimum wage linked to inflation and the poverty datum line and pay equity for women, youth and casual workers.
According to the ZCTU, only about 10% of workers in formal employment earn above the breadline salary of US$450, while multitudes of workers have been made redundant following company closures over the past years and have to eke out a living as petty traders in the informal sector.
BY LUCIA MAKAMURE