As Zimbabwe’s labour situation spirals out of control in a freefall characterised by serfdom – whereby employers blatantly violate the country’s constitution on labour rights, increasingly abusing their workers with impunity – is it not time that they were finally held to account?
By Tendai Ruben Mbofana
The supposed reason why this country went through a bloody protracted armed liberation struggle was for all citizens to enjoy equal and free treatment – and the workplace was one of the most important of these, as during the colonial days, most segregation and abuse occurred there.
In fact, the liberation struggle effectively had its roots in the labour movement – with such stalwarts as the late Benjamin Burombo and Joshua Nkomo spearheading massive trade activism.
Although, in those days workers were discriminated upon on the basis of race and gender – as far as levels of remuneration and positions were concerned – they were, nevertheless, paid every time and on time.
This was despite the fact that after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), the country was under comprehensive economic and political United Nations (UN) sanctions.
However, after the gruesome loss of thousands of lives, in a protracted armed liberation struggle, which was meant to remedy this discriminatory system, the situation has, instead, become worse for Zimbabwean workers.
Not only is racism still prevalent in some companies, but workers have been reduced to nothing more than slaves, who are neither paid any salaries or terminal benefits.
So who benefited from the blood and loss of lives of thousands of gallants sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers of this nation?
Certainly, not the ever oppressed workers!
Section 65(1) of the Zimbabwe Constitution clearly stipulates that, “Every person has the right to fair and safe labor practices and standards and to be paid a fair and reasonable wage”.
Clearly, this is not the treatment most Zimbabwean workers are receiving.
To start off with, ‘the right to fair and safe labor practices and standards’ is nothing but mere fantasy in this country.
Reports of racial discrimination at the workplace are rife, most prominently at the hands of a well know and politically highly-connected White employer in the Manicaland province – who is reported to only pay his fellow White employees, whilst the Black ones go without – among-st a host of other racially-inspired segregation – in spite of his riches that can afford his family to fly around the country.
He is allegedly able to get away with this racism as a result of the protection he receives from his high-ranking government official friend – the same person who supposedly fought in the liberation struggle against these same prejudices.
Furthermore, workers on farms, especially those working for the newly resettled farmers, live in dwellings that are not fit even for a pig.
These are just two of countless instances, as it would require a whole book to document such malpractices.
Needless to say, I have already started working on publishing such a book.
As for the right ‘to be paid a fair and reasonable wage’, that has become a pipe dream for the Zimbabwean worker.
How can anyone justify a general farm labourer earning a pathetic US$30 a month!
As a matter of fact, no worker in Zimbabwe earns a ‘fair and reasonable wage’, as compared to the country’s neighbours – evidenced by the mass exodus of the labour force to these countries, even by those who had employment.
However, to add insult to injury, employers are not even paying their employees even those ‘below standard’ wages – as workers at some companies have gone for years without any salaries.
In spite of the persistent whining by these employers – including government – over the dire economic situation in the country, there has never been any report of any of them going to bed hungry, or failing to pay school fees for their children.
On the contrary, these employers maintain their lavish and luxurious lifestyles unabated – still sending their children to the most expensive schools, whilst residing in mansions, and dining at the finest hotels.
On the other side of town, their workers – who provide that wealth – can hardly afford a decent meal, not to mention their inability to pay their children’s school fees, and pay rentals for the most basic of accommodation.
These callous employers are the same people who push the government to institute such cruel legislation as Statutory Instrument No. 64 – that makes it virtually impossible for ordinary people to import certain products, ostensibly so as to promote the ‘suffering’ local industries.
Who really is suffering in Zimbabwe?
If those industries were genuinely suffering, then their owners would be suffering as well – but they are clearly not, as they continue with their opulent lifestyles, with scant regard for their workers.
So what guarantee is there that even if these industries recovered, workers would be treated any better?
If these employers are not faithful with the little they are getting from their businesses, how can they be faithful with more?
Would it not be better to promote the suffering and abused workers by scrapping this Statutory Instrument No. 64, by encouraging them to engage in their own small businesses?
It is high time these employers were held accountable for their blatant breach of the country’s supreme law.
Litigation should be instituted against employers who have breached Section 65(1), or any other part of the law.
Workers are the drivers of any economy, and as such, should never allow themselves to be taken for granted, but should bravely and legally stand up for their rights – no matter the consequencies.
We need a new breed of Benjamin Burombos and Joshua Nkomos, who understand that real change comes from an unflinching modern day liberation struggle fraught with personal sacrifices – not from half-hearted struggles, whereby they demand their rights, but are afraid of losing their jobs.
If workers seriously require genuine change and a better tomorrow, they have to be willing to put everything on the line today, and fight for what they truly deserve – as there is no other way.
° Tendai Ruben Mbofana is the Programmes Director at the Zimbabwe Network for Social Justice (ZimJustice) – an organisation that aims to provide pro bono legal assistance to unpaid and exploited workers.
Please contact him on: +263782283975, or email@example.com