At all times they have unreservedly shown that they placed the safety and comfort of their passengers above all else, and have been leading contributants to the exceptionally high safety record of Zimbabwe’s national airline. But no one has ever been totally immune to committing errors, doing others and themselves disservice.
That is certainly so of the present strike in which the airline’s pilots are engaged. It is an action which is ill-considered and counterproductive — not only against the best interests of the airline, its customers and the national economy — but also against those of the striking pilots. In fact, the pilots’ action is tantamount to them shooting themselves in the foot.
In so contending, one cannot but be sympathetic with the pilots, for it is an untenable circumstance that they are victims of immense arrears of remuneration to which they are lawfully entitled. For which they have consistently fulfilled their service obligations. It is an indisputable right to seek their lawful entitlements, but doing so by withholding their services is counterproductive in the extreme, and exceptionally harmful not only to the employer, but also to Zimbabwe as a whole, including the strikers themselves.
It is a harsh and incontrovertible fact that Air Zimbabwe is operating under extremely difficult financial circumstances. This is in no manner a new circumstance, but has prevailed almost continuously. Ever since the national airline was established, more than half a century ago, each and every government has failed to capitalise the airline adequately, forcing it to resort to costly borrowings — albeit guaranteed by the state.
The government has also sought to wield excessive control over the airline’s policy and management determinations. Since 1990 an intent to privatise the airline, in whole or in part, has repeatedly been mooted by government, but nothing has been done to achieve it. In the meanwhile, the airline has been forced to operate with an inadequate fleet of aircraft recurrently diminished by expropriation for governmental journeys abroad, high funding costs, and subject to inappropriate operational policies imposed by the ministry to which it is accountable. These and other factors have inevitably resulted in continuous operational losses, compounding the gargantuan operational constraints endlessly confronting the airline’s board of directors and its management, and exacerbating those losses.
As a result, payment defaults to personnel have been recurrent, over an extended period of time, and intensifying, to the immense prejudice of almost all the employees. It is, therefore not surprising, that ultimately the “lid blew off the pot” with the pilots resolving to take action intended to achieve a righting of the wrong done to them. They cannot be blamed for seeking and demanding their lawful entitlements. But to do so by recourse to an industrial action of a strike has been intensely counterproductive. The consequence has been to intensify the airline’s losses, reputedly an additional US$500 000 per day.
This can only worsen the financial circumstances exponentially, intensifying the inability of the airline to remunerate its employees, and to continue its operations. Instead of the action being able to yield the intended objective of receipt by the pilots of that lawfully due (nay, overdue!!) to them, the pilots have intensified their employer’s inability to pay.
Moreover, the pilots’ ill-considered actions are highly prejudicial to Zimbabwe as a whole, impacting very negatively upon the already weakened economy. The strike has horrendously impacted upon the slowly developing recovery of the tourism sector, with many hundreds of tourists left stranded at airports around Zimbabwe, and abroad. Many of those tourists will have resolved never to return to Zimbabwe, and will also not be the advocates of Zimbabwean tourism to others.
The consequential negative impact upon tourism will inevitably have downstream economic ill-effects, with minimisation of that sector’s sourcing of goods from other economic sectors. At the same time, many operations of the business sector have been disrupted, with businessmen being unable to undertake essential and urgent business travel within Zimbabwe, and beyond. Similarly, potential investors have been prejudiced, unable to travel to and within Zimbabwe, or to return to their home countries timeously, and thereby disillusioning them as to Zimbabwe’s suitability as an investment destination.
Compounding the tragedy is that the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) has been voiciferous in its support for the pilots’ actions, and thereby impliedly commending similar actions by others within the economy.
Trade unionism is an essential element of any economic society, for worker rights must be protected, and ZCTU has, over the years, done much for workers, and indirectly for the economy, as is very commendable. Its support for action of the nature resorted to by the pilots is however, most regrettable, ill-considered, and economically destructive. That support can well prove to be of great future prejudice to much of the ZCTU membership. Instead, ZCTU should be interacting constructively with employers and employees to identify solutions to labour problems, and to prejudices suffered by labour.
The Air Zimbabwe’s pilots’ strike is as deplorable and deserving of condemnation as has been actions, in the recent past, by some of government’s employees in the health care sectors, who allowed patients’ lives to be put at risk in pursuit of the employees’ remuneration demands.
No matter how grievously unjustly those employees may be deprived of legitimate rights, surely it cannot be acceptable to render their patients, as against their employer, the victims! Apparently, some of the government health care employees believe that their Hippocratic Oath obligations are only Hypocritical Oath obligations!
Government needs to constructively address labour issues. It needs to protect the operations of its parastatals and their employees by genuine and expeditious pursuit of privatisation. Workers need to resort to constructive and cooperative interaction with employers to attain mutually equitable and effective resolution of their reciprocal difficulties. When employees shoot themselves in the foot, they only intensify the ills.
By Eric Bloch