'Zim workers continue to suffer'

HARARE - From farm labourers and mine workers to the clock watchers who spend the day at government offices and privately-owned firms, misery seems to be the word that aptly describes the worker’s situation in Zimbabwe.

Three years into a coalition government that promised much and has delivered so little, impoverished workers can only watch in awe as those who negotiated themselves into power drive the latest cars and visit glittering world capitals at their expense.

With Chinese and “indigenous black Zimbabweans” making huge investments, the optimism brought by a new wave of investors has faded into frustration as many Zimbabwean workers still toil in harsh and dangerous conditions for as little as $4-a-day.

Despite well-detailed reports of the alleged abuse of workers not only by Chinese masters but also by Zimbabwean new farmers, labour unions are ignoring the exploitation.

Exploitation of workers has been reported at companies owned by Nigerians and Zimbabwean-owned farms. Even though Zimbabwean labour laws are strict and favour the worker, Chinese and black farmers are aggressively and ruthlessly trimming their payrolls while the pro-Chinese Mugabe government is ignoring the alleged abuses.

Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) says high unemployment rates are to blame for poor working conditions.

ZCTU secretary-general Japheth Moyo told the Daily News it is difficult for his union to agitate for job boycotts at a time when streets are swarming with unemployed people.

“Gone are the days of strikes and boycotts because of the number of people who are formally employed. People cannot go on strike when somebody else can take over their jobs,” said Moyo.

While workers labouring for Chinese complain of abuse and low wages, farm workers get a more rotten deal.

Secretary-general of the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union (Gapwuz) Gift Muti says the so-called new farmers are failing to prioritise the worker who is among the lowest paid in the country.

According to Muti some workers are paid $20-a-month, a pittance against the poverty datum line of close to $500 for a family of six.

“We have said $59 is the legal amount that farm workers are supposed to get, although it is unfortunate that we have other employers who are failing to pay the money. More than half of the newly resettled farmers are not paying their workers,” said Muti.

But with such high proportions of workers being abused, why is it difficult for the unions to rise up?
Raymond Majongwe, secretary general of the concerned ZCTU affiliates says the scale of abuse at the new factories and farms is a vexation that defies logic and blames inaction on political infiltration of unions.

“The problem we have is politics. There is a concerted effort by both parties to sponsor splinter groups. There are a lot of attempts to interfere with unions and the result is unions fail to unite and speak as one,” said Majongwe.

Zimbabwe, with only 10 percent of its 12 million population employed, has two major trade unions the ZCTU and Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions (ZFTU).

“Even the struggle for workers working for the Chinese is being compromised. At farms there is serious exploitation. In mining it is even worse. In these indigenous and Nigerian companies it is just unbelievable,” said Majongwe.

Trade unionist Manual Nyawo said there is need to depoliticise unions if the struggle for the worker is to be given a new meaning.

“As unions we need to reorganise ourselves and send a clear signal to the government because we cannot allow a situation where workers are abused. However, I am worried by the fact that we cannot work together,” said Nyawo, who is the chief executive of the Teachers Unions of Zimbabwe.

However, Moyo says unions are not sharing blankets with politicians.

“The terrain has changed and workers are no longer as militant as they were before because of high unemployment rates. The accusation that unions are in bed with political parties is a hypothesis that has no evidence,” said Moyo.

While the government might have developed a comfy relationship with the Chinese, Zimbabwe’s once famed trade unions are a pale shadow of their former status when they had the stamina to shake the foundations of the otherwise unflinching Zanu PF government.

But desperation seems to have pushed workers to accept harsh working conditions where they cannot even form unions, making the battle all too cumbersome since workers committees are critical in leveraging worker favourable bargains.

“The problem with workers at Chinese firms is they are not unionised and it is therefore difficult to assist them. People should also appreciate the legal system which is slow in taking effect. The government should put more judges to help deliver justice to the worker,” said Moyo. But Moyo’s argument is just another flip-side of the coin.

Veteran trade unionist Lovemore Matombo said at a national level, there is no union to talk about.

The former president of a united ZCTU said the only movement noticeable today is in the smaller unions.

“There are court battles over ZCTU leadership and these have affected the effectiveness of the labour movement. It is at the national level where unions are non-existent,” said Matombo.

Consequently for workers who ate crumbs from the Chinese table, endured nights overcrowded sleeping on the hard, cold floor; there is nowhere to run.

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