Zimbabwe: Ghost Workers Should Not Be Paid

Striking Zimbabwean doctors (file photo).
23 April 2021

The only surprise in the latest Government decision not to pay teachers who are not performing their minimum contractual obligations is that Government in effect gave them as long as a month to make up their minds, bending over backwards not to be confrontational.

All teachers in public schools were supposed to be back at work just before March 22 when the bulk of schoolchildren went back to school after the long lockdown break.

Most did return and are performing their duties. Over the next month, a growing number of those holding out, claiming they were "incapacitated", realised that they were professionals with obligations or for other reasons, and returned to duty.

A small group decided to report to their schools, but refused to teach when they were there, but it is long established law that a sit-in strike is still the same industrial action as a strike and it does not matter whether an employee withholding labour sits at home, hangs around outside the premises or is physically present on the premises, but declining to do their duties.

While those teachers not at work have tried to avoid any use of words like "strike" or "industrial action", simply saying they are "incapacitated" the fact remains that they are not on duty when they should be and are, in effect, withholding their labour.

In many ways, they have become classic "ghost workers", people who latch onto the public payroll without being physically present at work.

In Zimbabwe, there has been a curious expectation in industrial disputes that employees withholding labour should be paid. The private sector followed the general international practice some time ago and made it clear that regardless of the legality or otherwise of any industrial action, those not at work when they were supposed to be would not be paid.

It needs to be stressed that not paying workers not at work without a lawful or contractual excuse is quite separate from a decision to take or not take disciplinary action.

A strike can be totally legal, for example, but in almost every country these legal strikers are not only not paid, but do not even expect to be paid. What a legal strike means is that workers on strike are protected from disciplinary action, not that they can expect to be paid by an employer.

So entrenched is this standard procedure of no work means no pay, that since the very start of the trade union movement in the 19th century in most jurisdictions, unions have been building up strike funds to ensure that if an industrial dispute does go the extreme of a strike, they can pay striking members an allowance while they are away from work.

Depending on union resources and policy this can range from a significant percentage of take-home pay down to a basic allowance that covers basic groceries.

In fact it is fairly common in some countries that as wage negotiations, or other industrial talks, are moving towards deadlock that a union might well hand over an audited statement of their strike fund assets, just so everyone knows how long they can stay away.

To the best of our knowledge no Zimbabwean union has a strike fund, and certainly no union or staff association representing public service employees, so it is difficult to understand when some wild voices suggest a strike or its equivalent. How do they expect their members to manage?

Life is not a bowl of cherries in the private sector when it comes to industrial relations, but there is a far greater degree of realism by employees.

The post-independence introduction of workers committees at each place of employment, or each company, has been remarkably successful and it is now routine for workers committees to be briefed quite extensively on their employer's economic performance.

This is backed by the system of national employment councils for each sector, each council made up of exactly equal numbers of representatives of the trade unions and the employers associations and generally supported by a small professional staff whose salaries are paid exactly half from employee levies and exactly half from employer levies.

These councils sort out the legal minimum wages for each grade of non-managerial employee, plus many other conditions of service.

It is stressed that the wage scales, which are gazetted as legal requirements, are minimums and employers and employees are encouraged to negotiate higher scales at each place of work. The NEC staff can also be called in to assist in resolving many serious disputes.

Government has started a similar system in the public service. The talks with between the Apex Council, which represents all staff associations, and the Public Service Commission have become far more serious and meaningful.

The associations now receive fairly complete briefings of the Government's ability to pay, something that is hardly a State secret since the Government is now obliged to publish fairly regular accounts for all citizens to peruse.

There is still the hangover from the First Republic, when the Government was willing to print money to pay civil servants, and so no effective limits were in place. So there is need for staff associations to move further towards the attitudes now common among private sector workers of looking at employers' ability to pay very closely to get an idea of how far they can push.

The Government itself has now adopted a standard private sector approach of making unilateral pay rises when agreement cannot be reached, or when discussions are dragging on, simply to show willingness to be as fair as possible.

This fits in with the Government's double commitment to fiscal discipline and fairness to staff. The Second Republic has made it clear that salaries must come out of revenue, which means taxes; printing and borrowing money for recurrent costs is no longer an option.

But the Government has equally made it clear that its staff should get the same slice of taxes when tax collections increase.

This is where those unilateral increases arise. As tax revenues rise and ability to pay more is possible, the Government moves swiftly to pay more as soon as this is possible.

There are, of course, other options to pay more and balance the budget. One is to cut numbers and reduce services, so having fewer people in the public service. This is not really an option, at least on any scale, since the bulk of civil servants are teachers, nurses, doctors and agricultural extension staff.

So the only way forward is for all civil servants to realise that they need to stick to agreements, but at the same time push hard within the limits of those agreements. Messing around with half-baked individual action is not going to work, especially as the Government is now moving into standard labour relations, such as no-work means no pay.

In the private sector that is normally followed by disciplinary action, to see if employment contracts have been breached. That is a separate, and more involved process, but at some stage the action will be required. We cannot have ghost workers clogging a payroll when the real workers need every cent we can find.

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