ONCE the voice of Zimbabwe’s downtrodden, the country’s labour movement stands mortally wounded in the aftermath of last month’s Supreme Court judgement that gave employers the right to terminate employees’ contracts just on notice — without the usual packages.
BY RICHARD CHIDZA
By the stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court left the country’s workers exposed and the result has been massive layoffs.
Now the very existence of labour unions and National Employment Councils, themselves employers of hundreds, lies in ruins and economists say their relevance is now in question. The survival of this sub-sector depends on the response of President Robert Mugabe’s government. But if early indications are anything to go by, it appears there is little if any light at the end of the tunnel.
Mugabe’s government, through Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa, has already indicated readiness to force through a long awaited cut of its own labour force using the same Supreme Court judgement.
Analysts say the government seems to have kick-started a subtle economic reform process in Zimbabwe such as the one witnessed in China following the death of communist dictator Mao Tse-tung in the mid to late 70s.
Following Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s visit to China a few weeks ago, it was reported that at least five “experts” had been seconded to Mugabe’s office from the Development and Reform Commission of China.
The five are already in the country and working from Mugabe’s office in what is clearly a post-Mugabe era reform plan.
Political analyst Pedzisai Ruhanya said the events of the past few weeks were well-choreographed to tally with a shifting ideological stance by Mugabe and his Zanu PF party.
“The Supreme Court ruling indicates the regime’s efforts to liberalise labour. They are sending a message to investors that they can come to Zimbabwe and operate on cheap labour,” Ruhanya said.
“What is more telling though was Mugabe’s response to the whole thing. When everybody expected a vintage Mugabe to come out guns blazing, angered by the ruling that is clearly anti-people, he seemed to accept it,” said Ruhanya. “The ruling elite were not surprised by the ruling and seemingly expected — even welcomed it. It will be foolish for anyone to think that this is an ordinary court ruling”.
He however warned that Zanu PF needed to go the whole gamut and accept that liberalisation of the economy alone will not work.
“Without a concomitant shift in the political culture, whatever Mugabe has in mind is doomed. His situation differs with that of the Chinese in that he does not have the numbers to support an explicitly cheap labour marketplace. The Chinese, because of sheer numbers, could afford and they have managed to transform to the market economy without corresponding changes to their politics,” said Ruhanya. “For them, it was either they reformed or they [would] die”.
Economist John Robertson said the Supreme Court judgement was long overdue.
“Zimbabwe is using equipment and production methods long made redundant in other economies. This country has become an expensive investment destination because of its strict labour laws,” Robertson said.
He said the issue of retrenchment did not exist in Zimbabwe’s labour laws but had become a “practice” forced upon business by government.
“In the early 80s government forced on employers the issue of retrenchment packages as a form of payment to workers being laid off. Companies were supposed to come up with a plan to retrench that included this gratuity. It was never in the statute books but it then became a common practice and requirement if anyone wanted to lay off workers,” he said.
Just days after the judgement, the Supreme Court handed down yet another massive blow for workers when it ruled that allowances could be disregarded if they were not part of an employment contract.
Lawyer and political analyst Alex Magaisa summed up the feeling across the country’s remaining formal job market, saying “the honeymoon for the Zimbabwean employee is over”.
But Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary general Japhet Moyo said the Zanu PF government had for years pursued a vicious agenda to destroy organised labour.
“The relevance of unions will remain as unquestionable as ever but let us not lose sight of the fact that there has been a brutal war to destroy organised labour because of our decision to form a political party. They have pursued this agenda, if they destroy organised labour then the chances of the dying opposition being revived are slim,” said Moyo.
Another analyst Takura Zha-ngazha said the country’s labour federations were “in trouble”.
“If there is anything that we can learn from these unfortunate developments, it is that Zimbabwe is now in a full-fledged age of state capitalism/ neo-liberalism, or as Naomi Klein ably puts it, ‘disaster capitalism’. And our courts, by default, are interpreting the law within this ideological ambit.
“The latter is characterised by the withdrawal of the state from what should be an obligatory role of protecting citizens from the vagaries of the ‘free market’. In this there is rampant privatisation of state assets and limitations on the labour rights of workers especially in times of endemic economic crisis,” said Zhangazha.
He said the role of unions would be diminished.
“Add to this, a deliberately diminished role of trade unions and unionism and you have a recipe for an undemocratic laissez faire economic framework that benefits the already rich, those that are politically connected to the detriment of a majority poor,” Zhangazha said. “In light of this unfair reality, the ball is firmly in the labour movements’ court. It is the struggling Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and its affiliates that have to redefine their agenda in view of the broader disempowering intentions of government”.
Robertson added that the time had come for workers to take charge of their future than rely on employers’ generosity at the end of their careers.
“They should also make sure they prepare themselves for other jobs if they think they are in danger of losing the ones they have,” said Robertson. “As for NECs and unions, their relevance should begin to be interrogated”.