This week, both Houses of Parliament approved a Bill to amend the country’s labour laws in light of a spate of job cuts that were occasioned by a Supreme Court judgment giving employers the right to terminate workers’ contracts on three months’ notice. Our Political Editor Tichaona Zindoga (TZ) sought the views of Raymond Majongwe (RM), a firebrand trade unionist who welcomes the move but is not entirely convinced workers are safe. These are excerpts of the interview:
TZ: A lot has happened during these past few weeks on the job market and most importantly the Labour Amendment Bill this week passed through both houses of Parliament. What’s your reading of these developments?
RM: We are actually convinced that when Parliament and Senate were recalled and rushed into this particular business, the Minister (of Labour, Prisca Mupfumira) was obviously taking a cue from the urgency of the matter and since President Mugabe had also called for the urgent addressing of the issue. There are people who are saying it was a positive outcome because it was going to bring a solution and a stoppage to the carnage and the tsunami that was facing workers. The most important thing though is basically that the victimisation of workers, their suspension and dismissals have continued unabated and one wants to believe that the reason is because of how people are reading this particular Bill and this will actually remain another puzzle.
TZ: But haven’t you gone through the proposed amendments which have just sailed through Parliament? What has been your reading of this?
RM: Apparently the exciting part is that there are almost four or five Bills that we have seen. The first one that came in, the first draft that was done on the 4th of June, the second one on the 30th of June, the third one on the 30th of July, the fourth one on the 31st of July and the fifth one on the 7th of August. There are several things that one can trace. On the one hand there are things that we thought were progressive that were in the early editions of this Bill, but they were then taken out. And I want to believe that this last draft was taken to the Attorney-General’s office for the final product.
TZ: Can you be specific? You alluded to the first drafts and the later drafts; can you be specific to say what was taken out and what changed?
RM: I will basically look at the very concept we are talking about, the termination notice. It was not as is now. Secondly, the interference of the minister in trade unions. I will basically pick on those two. Now you can actually see that the minister can actually have a direct control of the trade union movement, part of which was not in the earlier drafts.
TZ: And the other things; what are the other highlights that we find, progressive or otherwise? Can you just take us through so that the worker will understand?
RM: I think the items that obviously come about are the same issues over retrenchment and the challenges associated therewith. There were already mechanisms to do with that and the so-called prospective investors were always saying they can’t come to invest in Zimbabwe because the law was too protective of the worker. They were actually saying it is very difficult to dismiss a worker in Zimbabwe. This is the argument that people have always made and to us it is funny because the world must understand that when laws are promulgated, they are there to protect the weak and vulnerable. In the past the law was created to make sure workers were not abused by fly-by-night capitalists, fly-by-night industrialists and fly-by-night investors. I want to believe that is one of the greatest things that the Zanu-PF Government had done. The fact that the economic turbulence in Zimbabwe is forcing the IMF to bring their package and agenda is forcing us to realise the fingerprints of the IMF in all these programmes. As far as we are concerned, you can’t then get up and tell us that the IMF agenda which we saw and its disastrous effects in the Esap era, and we then rejected, have become so good today.
A few years ago when Zimbabwe wanted to be put in the highly indebted poor countries categories, the Government stood up and said, “No we are not poor and vulnerable because we have our own resources”.
We find it absurd and funny that our country with a Socialist, Marxist ideological persuasion is really pursuing the IMF prescribed measures. We are questioning, why is it that all of a sudden we have forgone our stance, our sovereignty? On the other hand many of us who are reading this particular thing well, many of the companies that are chasing away workers, they are doing it precisely because they want to re-engage them as contract temporary workers. We have taken the route of the economic zones and I think it is something that this country and Zanu-PF Government was supposed know and notice and say this is not acceptable.
TZ: In light of these developments, do you not see any effort to protect the worker from exploitation?
RM: I want to believe that this has become a case of a hyena that is protecting the kudu’s offspring. Basically because either it is too weak, too young or it has enough meat, basically waiting for it to grow so that it consumes it again. Apparently this Bill does not guarantee the workers of any solace. Basically have a feeling of, who is going to be consumed next? The current crop of legislators is different from those back in the 1980s. When the likes of Eddison Zvobgo who visited companies and demanded that workers who would have been dismissed get reinstated. Don’t forget when the President used the Presidential Powers in 1983, when all these challenges were happening, you must understand one thing, those parliamentarians were not the current parliamentarians that we have today on two fronts: One, they were just people who did not have the resources, they were not employers, they were not serving the dual purpose because they were not farmers. Now what you find here is there are many of our politicians who are industrialists, who are in construction, who are in agriculture, who are in industry and they are playing a dual role of moderating their own game. Here is a person who is a referee, he is the same person who is the match commissioner and he is the same person who is the owner of the club. So when each one of these levels is in distress, he has to consider how much he must give in? There are two things that have to happen, the local Zimbabwean politician-investor, agricultural plot or farm owner, has to then give in to say let us give some semblance of dignity to the way these people are going to be removed, but at the same time let’s retain those who have enough technical, mechanical knowledge so that our systems and entities continue running. At the end of the day this is the exact problem that then creates the challenges for the future. To say, the worker, those who would have gone empty-handed will obviously turn back and say at least we got something. I want to tell you that the Pandora’s box has just not been opened. I will tell you, the same employers are now going to say here’s two weeks for every year served backwards and they will go only to 2009 and say from 2007 to 2009 we are not going to pay anything because the economy was not functioning.
They are still going to go back and say they are not going to pay for years served in the era of the Zimbabwean dollar. So we are still to really discover what is going on. Add to it, lastly, the position that the employers have taken under Emcoz. I was reading their position where they made it very clear that they did not associate themselves with the ongoing processes. This particular way of doing things is unacceptable in my view because the employers are just protecting much of the loot that they have.
TZ: But as workers, maybe with the exception of ZCTU you recently engaged Minister Mupfumira. Why would you cry foul now?
RM: We have a problem in this country because we are fragmented and there is no unity in the labour movement. If you consider how the ZCTU participated in it, they participated to a point. When they discovered that they were no longer having the voice that they wanted, they quickly extricated themselves. In other words, that was a clear abdication of responsibility.
But this must be a learning curve for everybody. For the ZCTU to say, you can’t fight this thing on your own. Everybody including the ZFTU, the ZCTU and our recently launched labour union called the Confederation of Trade Unions which was a breakaway from the ZCTU. The real challenge is that there is a serious big brother mentality in the Zimbabwean labour movement where people think that it’s them and them alone. People want to stand up and say: I am the one who threw the spear that killed the elephant. People have forgotten that the elephant cannot be killed by one spear. This elephant does not need one hunter.
People whom we thought were massive hunters have failed to bring down this elephant. But still this lesson has not been learnt. One would have assumed that people would have swallowed their pride. People should have come together. People should have said let’s forgo our petty personal differences.
The reason why we have several labour centres is basically because of selfishness. People want to become the ultimate champions and this is the reason why this Bill is passing. The reason why this Bill is passing is precisely because we have people who do not know what their role must be.
TZ: Let’s talk about the TNF. Is it a viable mechanism at the moment or what is really assailing that particular platform?
RM: The Tripartite Negotiating Forum is what ordinarily happens in most countries. It’s a social contract that is now recognised by law. In terms of production, in terms of economic production, you expect government as an employer and you expect the employers under their registered legally recognised entity and then the workers represented by their labour movements to sit down in that triangular process of tripartism. But here is a very sad scenario where we are failing as a process to recognise that the situation the creation of the process of this TNF has changed. We also need to make sure that you don’t give that right only to the ZCTU. What it says is that the most representative is the ZCTU but nobody has gone on to challenge and say: Is the ZCTU the most representative labour union in this country.
When it came into being, what were the nature of the economic challenges the country was facing? We were not facing this almost shutdown process that we have, which means using an old tool to create an old machine: it is definitely going to be dysfunctional when it starts operating. Our view, our position, even our plea to the minister is that the TNF must recognise the level of diversity which we have in the labour movement; I want to believe even in the employers sector. You are definitely going to find people called Emcoz being the umbrella but don’t forget that each one of these entities is represented. If you are going to look at the letter that they jointly signed it has the Employment Federation of Zimbabwe, the Bankers Association of Zimbabwe, the Chamber of Mines in Zimbabwe, Commercial Farmers Union, Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union, Zimbabwe Farmers Union, Zimbabwe Council for Tourism, Zimbabwe Chamber of Commerce. But what happens when it comes to labour? ZCTU says it is us and nobody else. And the minister is apparently bound by the dictates of the ILO, which are not the political realities of our country. We need the Ministers ultimately to say how do we engage? How do we have a tripartite negotiating forum that does not only involve the Apex Council? The greatest employer in this country is Government with 400 000 employees who are not represented at Apex. So how does the TNF sit and discuss the future of labour, Government and employer engagement when its own employees are not represented at TNF? That means TNF as a concept must be revisited, there must be serious dialogue and consultation around it and I want to believe that it is within the terms of reference and powers of Government to have this matter addressed. Otherwise, selfish people will continue going there and not address. For instance, now that things are where they are, the ZCTU having seen what happened then ran away and said we are not happy with the process but they were part and parcel of the process and the minister then did not stop. She proceeded to say this is what we are going to implement.
TZ: And maybe lastly, TNF going forward, you mentioned loopholes regarding this Bill supposing it sees the light of day. Can some measures be taken to ameliorate the position of the worker post- this Bill, this Act?
RM: I am very confident that there are two options that remain. One, the President causing those considerations and I want to believe that because of the nature and the attitude of the President, there is that possibility. Even when Senate takes it to him, the way I have understood President Mugabe he has the interests of the workers at heart and he will force the necessary changes. I am appealing and pleading with him.