As the nation plunges deeper into economic turmoil, trade unions have come under the spotlight as they clash with government and business over the working conditions of the country's ever-dwindling workforce. Zimbabwe Independent reporter Lisa Tazviinga (LT) interviewed Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) president Peter Mutasa (PM) on various issues which include the impact of the Tripartite Negotiating Forum (TNF), deteriorating working conditions and looming protests. Below are excerpts:
LT: ZCTU has been lobbying government for better salaries for some time now. Have you made progress in your deliberations?
PM: Workers are starving, failing to pay rent and to access medical care. We therefore needed to find a negotiated settlement with government and employers.
Unfortunately, our attempts failed because the government is not attuned to social dialogue and inclusive policy formulation. While we were preparing for the meetings, the government was busy promulgating Statutory Instruments without consulting both labour and business. In the process, this brought serious negative implications, especially on the working class. We then reported back to the workers and they asked the ZCTU to organise a general strike.
LT: What do workers want? Is it a ZCTU-organised stayaway or a demonstration?
PM: We have a general council decision based on the demand from workers that we call for a two-day general strike at a date to be announced. It will be a peaceful protest against increasing poverty that is affecting many citizens. Workers will be demanding a living wage, that is US dollar salaries or equivalent based on the obtaining interbank market rate.
It is also a protest against erosion of pensions, which have been wiped out twice in a decade. This is the only way workers can survive in a market where prices of goods and services are pegged in US dollars. For workers in the informal sector it will be a protest against destruction of livelihoods due to the arbitrary policies. Other groups like maize, tobacco and cotton farmers are also toiling for nothing and losing out due to the arbitrary policies.
It is therefore a legitimate call for action that must be supported by many struggling social groups.
LT: Earlier this year you were arrested and detained following an uprising that the ZCTU allegedly incited. Are you not worried about that and also that strikes and demos could result in the same tragic scenario like the killing of more than a dozen people in January?
PM: We do not know how the security forces will react to our call for a stayaway or demonstration this time. The constitution provides the right to peaceful protest and what the security forces had been doing is against various international human rights conventions. We therefore do not think the state will continue to brazenly kill citizens and brutalise families like it did in January. However, it may still brutalise citizens again. This is why we are taking time to consult widely. We are also discussing with workers on measures that will reduce the opportunities for the security forces to brutalise citizens.
LT: The TNF Bill was finally passed and the first meeting has been held. Are you still optimistic that the forum will benefit workers?
PM: The first meeting of TNF indicated to us that the government is not very serious about it. We expected seven ministers and only one and two deputy ministers came.
The Ministry of Finance and Economic Development actually sent a junior official who could not commit or comment on behalf of the government. This clearly shows lack of political will on the part of government.
In addition, while we were planning for the meeting, the government unilaterally promulgated SI 142 of 2019 in clear violation of the TNF Act and the constitution.
All this shows that the government does not believe in dialogue and effective public engagement. We are therefore not likely to get any meaningful outcomes at TNF unless the government embraces the notion of social dialogue in good faith. It is this disdain for sincere dialogue that has made TNF not useful and not different from any other dysfunctional dialogue forums in our country.
LT: Labour in June gave government a five-day ultimatum to return the country to a multi-currency system after the passing of Statutory Instrument 142 of 2019 that made the Zimbabwean dollar the sole legal tender for domestic transactions. What were you hoping to achieve in your petition for government to withdraw SI 142?
PM: Both business and labour agreed that SI 142 of 2019 is disastrous. We therefore requested cabinet to rescind or review, hoping that we could collectively come up with a better policy. Our hope was to stop the negative implications of SI 142 before they paralyzed the economy. Unfortunately, the government refused and the economic crisis is heightened as everyone can see. As we predicted, prices of goods and services are increasing unabated, causing inflation to spiral. Citizens are no longer able to access basic goods and services. This was avoidable had the government listened to our collective wisdom.
LT: Labour minister Sekai Nzenza distanced herself from the statement issued by the TNF to reverse SI 142. What is you take on this?
PM: That is embarrassing. She called a Press conference immediately after the TNF meeting and announced correctly the outcome of the meeting. She also signed the TNF agreement together with business and labour leaders. How can she turn around and distance herself from something that is in black and white, without embarrassing herself?
LT: You have been accused of working to advance political interests instead of the interests of the workers. What is your response to these allegations including the claim that you are getting paid in US dollars while the rest of the workers were getting paid in local currency?
PM: That is cheap propaganda. I do not earn in foreign currency. l am a full-time employee of a union and there is no way my union can pay salaries in foreign currency.
LT: Prices have remained high and salaries seriously eroded. How best can government ensure that workers afford basic needs?
PM: The long-term solution requires real economic, social and political reforms. Without structural economic reforms such as ditching the neoliberal austerity policy, the economy will not recover. We need to come up with a pro-poor economic programme that is inclusive, owned by the citizens and democratically formulated.
There is a better choice for investment and growth than austerity. Austerity is a form of ESAP and will never lead to economic recovery. The Government must also respect the constitution, rule of law and fundamental freedoms of citizens.
Without widening the democratic space, the country will not be able to attract investment and stability necessary for economic recovery.
However, in the short term, there is no choice than re-dollarisation. Workers must be paid in US dollars or the equivalent at the interbank rate. The disequilibrium between prices that are pegged in US dollars and salaries that are in RTGS is not sustainable. Workers are struggling and businesses are also folding, there is urgent need for intervention.
LT: What has been the extent of job losses over the last 12 months?
PM: There is a dearth of reliable statistics. Many companies are folding without reporting. Many workers are also being laid off in informal means that cannot be captured. Many more workplaces are in the informal sector that is generally outside the formal system. It is very difficult to therefore tabulate the actual losses but there is no doubt that jobs are seriously being lost.
LT: What does Zimbabwe need to achieve the standards of decent work?
PM: There is no magic about this. We need to come up with a clear economic recovery programme. The government must also respect workers' fundamental rights.
The continued brutality and harassment of trade unionists curtails freedom of speech, association and assembly which are critical for advancement of workplace rights.
Decent work deficits are also more in the informal economy and there is need to support the formalisation of the informal economy through targeted, inclusive and well-planned government policies.
Much of the decent work deficits in the formal sector are a result of the continued weakening of the labour laws.
For a long time government and businesses have been colluding to weaken trade union power through various labour law amendments and judicial activism. This has been and continues to be the aim of global capital and multilateral institutions such as IMF and World Bank. Governments of the South must quickly realise that this doesn't benefit our economies. Workers must also realise that they can only fight back if united under a strong union.
All workers must desire to join unions and unions must also be attractive to workers through membership service.
Only collective political power of workers can guarantee a fair deal for workers. There is, therefore, need for labour law reforms aimed at strengthening workers rights such as collective bargaining and collective job action.
Workers need more collective power in order to effectively bargain better terms and conditions. In addition we need to improve labour inspection.
The national budget must prioritise capacitating labour management institutions. We also have problem areas like Chinese operations that disregard labour laws including safety and health requirements. Agricultural and domestic workers also face serious decent work deficits these must be targeted through joint campaigns by unions and government.