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Workers bemoan worsening poverty on Mnangagwa’s watch

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AHEAD of the 2021 Workers’ Day commemorations tomorrow, The NewsHawks (NH) caught up with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions president, Peter Mutasa (PM), for an interview to mark the 2021 International Workers’ Day commemorations.

Mutasa (pitured) said life has been extremely tough for employees, given the ailing economy, which has been worsened by Covid-19 and associated restrictions. He bemoaned the weaponisation of the pandemic by the government as well a vicious crackdown on dissent, including trade unions, as well as the authorities’ failure to cushion vulnerable communities. Below are excerpts:

NH – How has been the situation within the labour movement in the past year?   

PM: For the labour movement, the situation in the past year has been terrible. We had the disruptive Covid-19 pandemic and the related lockdowns.

This challenged all our routines and none of us was prepared for it. A lot of sectors were affected and many workers lost employment. A lot more workers lost incomes and some especially in the informal economy lost their livelihoods. 

The government turned a bad situation worse. Instead of progressive interventions, it weaponised Covid-19 regulations for political expediency. Again, it rejected our proposals that would have mitigated against the effects of the pandemic and the concomitant lockdowns.

We expected the government to protect jobs and incomes through provision of incomes support and moratorium on layoffs. We also hoped the government would render meaningful support to the vulnerable groups. However, most of what we had suggested was not taken on board.

The past year has also been terrible in terms of working conditions, especially wages. Workers’ salaries that were unilaterally varied from US dollars to RTGS by government were seriously eroded. Both inflation, which peaked at 837% last year and exchange rate losses, wiped out the purchasing power of wages. 

Now domestic workers earn only sufficient to buy nine loaves of bread. The minimum wage is only able to buy 25 loaves of bread. This is something that has no parallels even during the colonial era.
The most vicious attack was the sentencing of Sheila Chisirimunhu to 16 months in prison for demanding a wage rise.

Trade unions were designated terrorist organisations by the government and many trade unionists were threatened or attacked in one way or another.  In short, this past year has been hell.

NH: As you head for the 2021 Workers’ Day, what have been the milestones for employees in the past year?

PM: We are in a situation where just surviving is a huge milestone. In that regard, the fact that some workers survived the double tragedy of Covid-19 and state attacks on workers is in itself a milestone. We also managed to ensure that despite these problems, the trade unions remain in existence. 

One of the main milestones in the past year was our push for the re-introduction of the minimum wage. lt is now useless and we need to fight for its continued existence. However, at its inception last year, it was something we looked at as an achievement. 

Since the late 1990s, the government and employers have been rejecting the re-introduction of the minimum wage. It was only through our collective push that we got it back. Our task now is to ensure that it is reviewed to reasonable levels. 

We also witnessed increased unity amongst unions, especially the federations. Unions and workers were united by their collective misery and moved closer to each other on matters of common interest. In the Tripartite  Negotiating Forum, we all worked together and agreed on major issues.

Furthermore, there has been increased activism and consciousness across all sectors. Teachers, nurses, doctors and some private sector workers and unions have been demanding justice and fairness.

We still have a lot to do in order to push government and employers, but we see some promising energy within unions for fighting for the rights of workers.

NH: What is your theme this year? What are you focusing on?

PM: Our theme is “[email protected]: Fighting For Political, Economic and Social Justice in Zimbabwe”. We are looking back at how we have stood up for justice, fairness, democracy, equality, constitutionalism and other progressive moral values.

Zimbabwe is now clearly a failed state. It is a state failing to guarantee security of persons, failing to provide decent public services and it’s also facing serious social and economic implosion.
This has been caused by a host of factors including corruption, dictatorship, poor governance, state capture and the militariation of the state. 

Workers have been pauperised and are living in misery. As a result, we will focus on looking at how we can address the political, social and economic factors that have led us into this undesirable situation. We will draw from our past experiences to rally and mobilise workers to peacefully resist the policies that are hurting us. 

Thus, the main focus will be on how to successfully resist the twin evils of repression and neoliberalism-induced poverty. We are running out of time as workers and we need to quickly find solutions to the political and economic fascism exercised by both government and  employers. 

We will also focus on how to build enduring unity amongst workers and trade unions. Over the years the government, through propaganda and coercive divide-and-rule strategies, has been disenfranchising workers. It sought to divide workers based on political affiliation and sectors. However, workers are now united in common misery and nothing should divide us anymore. 

We know the one-party state agenda being pursued by the ruling party is real. We have witnessed how the ruling elites have been attempting to infiltrate unions and interfere with union processes. We also know the neoliberal ideology the government is pursuing requires weak and divided unions as once stated by (government spokesperson) Nick Mangwana. 

Thus government will continue to seek to destroy, weaken or capture unions, especially the ZCTU, through coercion, cooptation or cooperation. We will therefore look at how, learning from our well-documented history, we can reject and resist this. The struggle requires a united and independent labour movement.

NH: Since 2018, the government has embarked on a number of economic reforms. Have these paid off to workers?

PM: These were not reforms in the positive sense. These were means of entrenching a dictatorship. Most of the so-called reforms hurt the majority poor workers and citizens while benefiting the ruling elites and their cronies. 

There is no benefit in making 83% of all urban dwellers fail to buy bread, mealie-meal and cooking oil. It is a bad reform agenda that increases extreme poverty to 40% and poverty to above 72%. 
What reform causes workers to walk to work and to use old ramshackle buses and open trucks in the rain and cold? 

There has not been any meaningful reform. It is all about creating opportunities through patronage for enriching the few connected at the expense of the poor majority.

They buy foreign currency at US$1:RTGS84 and sell at US$1:120, making almost 40% gain without production. This is paid for by the workers and peasant subsistence farmers. There has been massive unfair transfer of wealth from the poor working class to few elites and their cronies. 

Our hospitals without equipment, drugs and manned by demotivated staff show the failures of the reforms. Our education sector is far worse than it was during Mugabe. Everything shows that there is need for genuine reforms and that the economic genocide currently regarded as reforms is dismal.

NH: There have been efforts by President Emmerson Mnangagwa to revive relations between social partners at the Tripartite Negotiating Forum (TNF). Has this effort paid off?

PM: Social dialogue is based on mutual respect, fairness and good faith. Where these are missing, any meetings will be a waste of time. We have had many meetings since February last year, talking about the need to urgently address the erosion of wages.

The government made many promises, but always reneges from its commitments. Employers are fully protected by their shareholders who are also members of Parliament and the executive. Only workers are suffering and crying for help to people who do not care. 

There is no reason for faking progress where there is none. There is no political will and the government doesn’t believe in social dialogue. It is a reality we have accepted, hence our pulling out (of TNF discussions). It is the government that has never wanted dialogue except only for propaganda.

NH: What is your last word to workers out there?

PM: Workers of Zimbabwe, you are on your own. The former liberators and revolutionaries are now the oppressors. The government is no longer promoting the common good but advancing wealth accumulation by a few. 

We therefore have only one option, which is to unite and collectively demand justice, fairness, dignity and equality. 

No one else but ourselves can free ourselves from this modern-day slavery. Let us learn from our rich history and follow what Benjamin Burombo, Joshua Nkomo and Morgan Tsvangirai did facing similar situations. Only peaceful, persistent and collective resistance using the lawful means provided in the constitution and Labour Act will liberate us from the jaws of poverty and repression.

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