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The Labour Act: A threat to productivity, growth and competitiveness

The most potent weapon of mass destruction in the hands of Zimbabweans right now is not automatic rifles, grenades, landmines or bombs. There are strict regulations and there is effective local enforcement precluding us from readily accessing this ammunition.


The most powerful, dominant and commanding weapon in our hands, by choice, is the smartphone. Mobile phones which were made to be enablers in general communication and business have become a threat and a menace both at home and at work. At work, the smartphone is causing labour productivity to diminish across the board in industry, commerce, the hospitality sector, agriculture, etcetera.

Smartphones have become dangerous not only because they cause a whole host of anti-social behaviour among people like stress, anxiety and depression, but because they alter behaviour. Anecdotal evidence is abound. Last week a friend narrated how when she visited the registrar general’s office to inquire on the progress of her passport, in one of the offices she entered, a young woman answered her personal smartphone as she approached the desk. She continued to chat for 10 minutes in what she said sounded like a personal conversation. She had to interrupt her to get attention. After being interrupted, the young woman was very upset and became rude, completely oblivious to her misdemeanour.

How many people could she have served in 10 minutes? How many minutes a day does she set aside for personal conversations during working hours? Those whose time has been wasted, how many are they? They would most likely have been productive elsewhere so how much time was lost to how many people because of a personal conversation lasting 10 minutes during working hours? In 22 working days a month, how much productivity time is lost within the passport office to this one young woman and to all the people whose time she wastes? This loss in productivity can actually be quantified, yet this woman cannot be fired instantly. The passport office would have to go through a rigorous labour process that includes written warnings and so on to eventually get rid of her. How many more people are doing this at the passport office and in many other organisations throughout the country? I will leave that to your imagination.

Yet the same smartphone, used productively, can be a weapon of mass usefulness, effectiveness and success. Wise entrepreneurs are using smartphones everyday to run multi-million dollar businesses from those phones without the need to drive or fly anywhere.

Yet in Zimbabwe, we have employees who report to work reliably everyday of the week, are paid their full remuneration at the end of the month not for their productivity, but for marking the attendance register and spending most of their time attending to non-business related issues like talking on the phone and interacting on social networks.

Presently, many Zimbabwean employers have no idea of the productivity levels of their employees because they are unable to measure it. What they are acutely aware of though is, there is no correlation between the value of output from their employees and wages they are paying to those employees. With the exception of the private educational sector where labour costs are anywhere in the region of 60%, in many other sectors, if an entity’s labour costs are more than 16% of turnover, the wage costs are dipping into the bottomline of that entity. In the region, Zimbabwe is second to South Africa in terms of high labour costs.

The Labour Relations Act is killing the goose that lays the golden egg. It continues to afford all kinds of rights and liberties to employees, en masse, without paying due regard to issues of productivity. The worst hit sector has been the agricultural sector. Since the land reform programme of the early 2000s, farmers with and without title have suffered immensely because of the application of the Labour Act. Productivity on many farms has been adversely impacted because of defiant farm labourers. There is a general mentality among black farm labourers that “it is better to work for a white farmer than a black one.” It is a mentality that needs wholesale decolonisation.

I know of black farmers right now who are having to literary transport workers from 200km away because the workers in their local environs have downed tools, some justifiably so, as a result of non-payment for years, but others for electing to poach Musasa trees and selling the wood to unscrupulous black and white farmers in the tobacco sector. To them,it is low-hanging fruit easier to access than to work an honest day’s work.

In 2016, the then Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare minister announced that they were setting up a Zimbabwe National Productivity Institute, an organisation supposed to “link wages to productivity in all sectors of the economy in an effort to rationalise the country’s labour costs and attract foreign investment.” The anticipated benefits of setting up such an organisation, is a pie in the sky. Zimbabwe does not need another state-owned enterprise (SOE) to help increase productivity levels in the country.

In the early 2000s, I had the opportunity to be a strategy consultant for the South African National Productivity Institute (NPI). What I observed was that they were duplicating the activities of so many other departments of government and SOEs. The SA NPI was set up 49 years ago, in 1968, with the goal of enhancing productivity and a better quality of life for all South Africans. Between 1999 and 2001 the NPI underwent a major transformation to align its strategy with the country’s national strategy and priorities. It refocused in order to be a “cutting edge productivity improvement solution provider through research and development, programme management, facilitation, training and dissemination of knowledge and information.” Yet, 16 years later after this major transformation, the SA NPI faces considerable constraints and challenges.

While the SA NPI has succeeded in selected small, micro and medium enterprise productivity, improvements and various skills development interventions, mandate programmes like getting the entire SA nation to embrace the productivity principle, achieving a common understanding of productivity among all stakeholders (business, government and labour) and obtaining total commitment from stakeholder principals to drive productivity improvement have been achieved at a snail’s pace. The SA NPI have argued that “productivity is a specialised environment and developing expertise takes time.” Almost half a century later, the SA NPI is still gropping in the dark.

The truth is Zimbabwe does not need a 100-employee organisation, with its own budget, CEO with all the attendant perks, senior management etcetera, to increase productivity in the country. Zimbabwe needs to seriously introspect in order to achieve mindset changes among workers at all levels, including executive management. Changing of a mindset needs discipline and that culture of discipline needs to be recaptured and instilled over years of blood, sweat and tears. Thereafter, with discipline firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans, there will be productivity improvements and with that, competitiveness will spike upwards.

Points to ponder in order to get Zimbabweans to work again
l The services of the ILO to Zimbabwe are currently premature.

Zimbabwe needs to pull away from the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The ILO does not currently serve our purpose and is best suited for countries that have achieved a certain level of development where there is discipline, a high and measurable work ethic, countries whose actors, the companies within those countries are internationally competitive and conquering world markets. China, India and Singapore achieved this and Zimbabwe needs to do the same. If Zimbabwe has to achieve the same, it needs to regroup and refocus and abandon this “rights” movement. Labour rights enshrined in the current Labour Act are not serving us well.

l Organisations must be allowed to hire and fire. There must be no security of employment. The job for life mentality ought to be discarded. Why does a generally unproductive and uncompetitive workforce whose catchment is from a majority that lives below the poverty datum line need rights?

l Labour rights must only be brought back gradually after Zimbabwe has achieved the global status of productivity and competitiveness levels that can be benchmarked against the best in the world.

l Confiscate all personal cellular phones at work

If an employee is not of seniority that qualifies for an organisation’s smartphone for business use, they have no business keeping one on themselves during working hours. Personal smartphones and all other cellular phones must be confiscated during working hours.

l Work hours ought to be increased in all sectors of the economy

Employees must work 12-hour shifts everyday, except Sunday, but taking three 30-minute breaks every four hours during the duration of the 12-hour shift. This should be across the board and must include all levels within the organisation.

l Do away with minimum wages

Minimum wages designed out of harmony with productivity are inflationary and serve no one including the employees they are meant to empower. The employer and employee ought to negotiate and agree on the nature, duration and quantum of the wages of that employment contract. Employment must be offered on a willing employer and willing employee basis.

l  Ban all labour movements, strikes and industrial action

The banning of all labour movements, strikes and industrial action will be time-bound. To achieve a productivity mindset, Zimbabwe might need up to 20 years when this ban would be in force.

These are points to ponder and obviously require further interrogation. There will be both a loud and vociferous local and international outcry. It must be ignored. Zimbabwean authorities need the audacity to disregard these noises.

Fifteen to 20 years from now, Zimbabwe will be hailed as a fastest growing economy in the world. Zimbabweans abroad and at home, never mind foreign direct investment, will be falling over backwards to invest in Zimbabwe because of the global work ethic we would have achieved.

The solutions to turn around Zimbabwe’s economy are hidden in plain sight, and this is only one of them. Let us not be fooled into participating in initiatives that do not currently serve us. Zimbabwe needs to get its people back to work first and at competitive wages much lower than the going levels. Zimbabwe fails to heed this message at its own peril. We do not need to look very far. Our neighbour and major trading partner has been loosing its competitiveness in major sectors because of being held at ransom by the highly-politicised labour movements.

 Gloria Ndoro-Mkombachoto is an entrepreneur and a regional enterprise development consultant. Her experience spans a period of over 25 years. She can be contacted at totemshumba@gmail.com

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