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The Elusive Promised Freedom: A Far Cry From Workers In Zimbabwe

Traditionally, the State maintains a cordial relationship with the workers because it derives its power from them. Hence, governments which are in power or even politicians who want to assume power promise the labour force Canaan, a land flowing milk and honey.

In the 80s into the 90s, the then Prime Minister and later on the President, we saw him being bolstered into and remaining in office by the then vibrant Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).

By Tendaishe Tlou

The working class was a force to be reckoned with. Under Socialism, the gratification of the workers is how one controls the masses and stays in power. The State used to take care of workers.

This piece is written amidst a strained State-workers relationship which is in direct contrast to the traditional culture and during a period when it seems as if the fallout between these two is irreversible.

Over and above any ideological inclination, the Constitution is the guarantor of labour rights in Zimbabwe. In 2013, Zimbabwe adopted one of the most liberal constitutions in the world.

During the R.G Mugabe era, it was a given that no matter how much the Constitution sought to promote and protect the rights and freedoms enshrined therein, violations still continued.

However, in light of the events of November 2017 when Robert .G Mugabe was unceremoniously forced to resign, the new administration under E.D Mnangagwa came in promising openness, the rule of law, peace and reconciliation. From the onset, the new government seemed different from the previous regime.

To a considerable extent, the civic space opened up, a move that was welcomed by the people of Zimbabwe and also the civil society. At that moment, Zimbabweans were able to experience and exercise their rights for the first time in a very long time.

Against this background, workers who felt stifled and abandoned by the Mugabe administration thought that this was a moment they could mobilise for mass action protesting against meagre salaries and poor working conditions.

From 1 to 26 March 2018 medical doctors in the public sector organised and executed a well-orchestrated and coordinated strike which crippled the health sector. Days became weeks and weeks became a month. Patients and the general populace of Zimbabwe started to feel the pinch imposed by the absence of doctors in public medical institutions.

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Whilst doctors remained adamant, Zimbabweans who were the ones immensely affected by the mass action started to call for the resolution of the impasse between the State and medical doctors. In no time, the State conceded to the protests by increasing the doctor’s salaries. On social media, doctors flaunted their pay-slips which indicated net salaries not less than $1 700. The mass action was a success and worked after all.

Immediately after the end of the doctors’ strike, other civil servants such teachers and nurses also started to show signs of dissatisfaction. In April 2018 nurses followed suit and also embarked on an ambitious nationwide strike clamouring for salary increments. ‘If doctors did it, why can’t we did it?’ was the question I guess.

The doctors’ strike had opened a can of worms and a slate of possibilities for disgruntled workers in Zimbabwe who were hoping that they will be treated the same. Once more, the strike was executed, but the response from the State was different.

Just a few days later after the commencement of the strike, the Vice President announced that the government had resolved to dismiss 16 000 nurses and replace them with unemployed and retired nurses without holding any negotiations with the protesting nurses. The process of replacement and re-applying is on-going by the time of publication of this article. The announcement sent shock waves right across the country.

In another twist of events, in the later days of April, 2018 the Zimbabwe Teachers Association (ZIMTA) mobilised and convened a conference in Victoria Falls and also resolved that they get salary increments.

The resolution was adopted and teachers planned to embark on another mass action coinciding with the opening of schools in May 2018. However, the teachers’ resolution was met with a negative response by the government which issued a stern warning that if you strike, you will also be fired and replaced.

Negotiations have been on-going since schools opened on the 08 May 2018. But, it is safe to speculate that teachers did not strike as planned because of fear of dismissal bearing in mind what had happened to the nurses.

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It is glaringly evident that the government has adopted a more confrontational and closed approach to problem-solving. It is unfortunate that these developments have coincided with the commemoration of the International Worker’s Day popularly known as ‘May Day done on the 1st of May, 2018.’

The month of commemorations will be done with a dark cloud hanging over workers in Zimbabwe, in direct contrast to the intended celebrations and acknowledgement of the workers’ contributions in building and sustaining the economy of Zimbabwe. The stance taken by the government is meant to instil fear in workers not to protest and demonstrate, now and in the future, against poor working conditions and meagre salaries.

The State is in direct contravention of s65 (1-5) particularly “every person has the right to fair and safe labour practices and standards and to be paid a fair and reasonable wage” and “every employee has the right to participate in collective job action, including the right to strike, sit in, withdraw their labour and to take other similar concerted action, but a law may restrict the exercise of this right in order to maintain essential services.”

These statements imply that no pronouncements by the Executive can override the supreme law of the country unless a motion is tabled in Parliament to be adopted as law. So far no law is available to prevent any citizen or workers to protest.

It is with great sadness that one acknowledges the dangerous unconstitutional trajectory which the government has decided to embark on. These developments will only increase the rift between State-workers relationship and cause more harm than good.

It also quells the possibilities of constructive dialogue and only exposes the nation to recurrent incidences of mass action which will cripple the economy. If the State is singing the tune of being ‘open to business’ it is also rationale to sing the tune of being ‘open for democracy.’ Commitment to only one aspect of recuperating the economy is only tantamount to failure and discord.

The State must urgently revert back to constitutionalism and the respect of human rights.

Workers’ rights are human rights!

Aluta Continua

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263Chat is a Zimbabwean media organisation focused on encouraging & participating in progressive national dialogue

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