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Employer awards pay rise after angry workers sabotage sugarcane

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SUGAR processor Tongaat Hulett Zimbabwe (THZ) was last week forced to increase salaries after disgruntled workers torched plantations of unripe cane in protest over low wages.

MORRIS BISHI

The incident took place after the company and unions representing the employees reached a deadlock during a collective bargaining process which began in March this year, with unions threatening to urge their members to down tools until their concerns are heard.

Plantations in Area 1 and 2 with various sections including 2, 9 and 13 saw several unripe cane fields being torched between 3 and 4 May, a development which saw several fire tenders being mobilised to tackle the blaze. The fields which were targeted had eight-month-old sugarcane which was not ready for harvesting. Cane is harvested after 12 months, but the company was forced to harvest the torched fields.

Two days after the fire, THZ called a meeting with three unions representing the workers and it raised the salaries all workers by 73.8% more than what they were offering before the fires.

The lowest-paid worker in grade A1 is now getting a monthly salary of ZW$54 000 and the highest-paid worker in grade B5 is now getting ZW$126 997.69, according to a collective bargaining agreement signed by the Zimbabwe Sugar Milling Industry Employers’ Association, Zimbabwe Sugar Milling Industry Workers’ Union (ZISMIWU), Sugar Production and Milling Industry Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe (SPAMWUZ), Sugar Milling and Allied Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe and the National Employment Council for the Zimbabwe sugar milling industry on 6 May 2022. The increase was backdated to 1 April this year.

However, employees are not happy with the increase after the company removed the cost of living allowance late last year as well as the removal of a United States dollar component, leaving them receiving only the local currency which is vulnerable to inflation.

SPAMWUZ secretary-general Adonia Mutero confirmed the agreement to The NewsHawks, but said workers are not happy with the increase which can cushion them for only a month. He said the removal of the forex component from the workers’ salaries will leave them in abject poverty, considering the current economic challenges affecting the country. He added that as unions they are not aware of the identities of people who torched the sugarcane fields, but said workers were angry during the collective bargaining period.

“I can confirm that the employer agreed to increase our wages by 73.8%, which is way below what we were expecting. Our situation was worsened by the removal of the foreign currency component from our salaries. We were receiving part of our salaries in foreign currency for two or three years but that was removed late last year and the employer is saying it removed it after a directive from Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. We are aware that some of the sugarcane plantations in Triangle were torched, but as unions we cannot tell the identities of the assailants, but truly speaking workers were angry. We will continue lobbying for better pay which will allow us to live a decent life since the current salaries will see most of the workers living in poverty,” said Mutero.

Tongaat Hulett corporate affairs and communications executive Dahlia Garwe  promised to call back The NewsHawks when contacted for comment, but she was later unreachable on mobile phone.

A senior THZ employee told The NewsHawks that the sugar-milling giant realised that employees were angry after the torching of unripe sugarcane fields and adjusted upwards what it had offered during the collective bargaining process. He said the company was offering ZW$37 000 for the lowest grade but later settled for ZW$54 000 after the unexpected fires which targeted the eight-month-old plantations.

“The company acted quickly after the fires but they wanted to play down the issue as if the fire was targeting ripe fields which were ready for harvesting. I can tell you that fire tenders were mobilised in a bid to put out the fire, but surprisingly they called unions for continuation of the negotiations where they offered more than what they were offering. This increment is nothing because we are now only getting the local currency,” said the senior employee.

With 19 000 employees at its peak, THZ is the country’s single biggest employer outside the government, making Chiredzi district the main cog in Masvingo province’s economic machinery.

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