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Zim workers commemorate painful struggle on May Day

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AS Zimbabwe commemorates Workers’ Day tomorrow, employees across the length and breadth of the country have had very little to celebrate amid the impact of Covid-19, retrenchments and the continued increase in the cost of living.

PALESA MUWANI
International Workers’ Day, also known as Workers’ Day or Labour Day in some countries and often referred to as May Day, is a celebration of the working class by the global labour movement every year on May 1.

The day however is a timely reminder of the failure by President Emmerson Mnangagwa to create the “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” he promised on the eve of his initial inauguration in 2017. The country’s economic crisis has worsened under his leadership with job losses, poor working conditions and low salaries being the order of the day.

Although annual inflation has come down from a high of more than 800% in August last year to 194.07% in April, the cost of living continues to skyrocket.  The monthly cost of living for a family of five has shot to ZW$28 362 from ZW$26 560 in March, according to data from the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat).

ZimStat revealed that a Zimbabwean consumer now requires ZW$5 672.47 to stay above the poverty datum line (PDL), also known as the Total Consumption Poverty Line (TCPL). This was up from ZW$5 312.19 in March.

In December last year, ZimStat stopped reporting on the PDL for a family of five to focus on individual data, claiming that it  was in line with international standards.

But translated to an average family, the ZW$5 672 adds up to ZW$28 362. However, most workers earn far below this amount as their salaries are way below the cost of living.

Workers’ Day this year will be commemorated with the country’s education sector in a parlous state as teachers have downed tools over poor working conditions.

Teachers, who represent the bulk of the civil service, earn between ZW$17 000 and ZW$22 000 per month, but they have been demanding between US$520 and US$550 per month, or the equivalent in local currency.

They have laughed off the government’s offer of a 25% increment this month with a further 50% increment in June.

The government has now resorted to putting in place a policy of “no work, no pay” as it desperately seeks to contain the damaging strike. The stand-off will worsen the plight of students whose syllabus has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although the government has given a positive economic outlook, it is not resonating with the struggling workers, according to economist Godfrey Kanyenze.

“Government has spoken of stability as a result of the good rains as well as improved stability. However, the worker has shouldered a disproportionate portion of this stability. The majority of workers are yet to feel the benefits of this stability,” Kanyenze said. “Development is not about economic aggregates. It is about the improvement in the welfare of the worker.”

Kanyenze said although there has been a significant drop in the level of year-on-year inflation, it was still too high as it remains at three digits.

“Inflation is still quite high despite it going down to 194%. Even if inflation goes above 10%, you are already complaining. Development is about people’s well-being. The current talk of stability and surpluses is not in sync with the experience of the worker,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than three million lives globally, has plunged the country’s battered economy into further turmoil.

According to the Employers’ Confederation of Zimbabwe, at least 30% of the country’s formal jobs were lost last year.   This year’s Workers’ Day commemorations also come at a time when there is a bloodbath on the formal job market.

Late last year, First Capital Bank (FCB) announced it will retrench workers as the business restructures in the face of the hyperinflationary environment and the need to digitalise.

Last week, financial services giant CBZ revealed it has resolved to lay off workers in response to the Covid-19-induced changes as well as the digitalisation  process it embarked on.

State telecommunications company TelOne has retrenched 184 workers as part of its digitisation programme. Stanbic Bank and Turnall have also slashed jobs.

The job losses are a continuation from the era of the late former president Robert Mugabe when unemployment became rife as a result of massive economic decline. More than 2 800 workers were retrenched by 73 companies in 2017 for various reasons ranging from restructuring to viability challenges. 

A total of 8 843 workers were laid off in 2015 and 2016. In 2015, a total of 5 333 workers were retrenched and this does not include those who were affected by the July 17 Supreme Court ruling that year which allowed employers to dismiss workers on three months’ notice. In 2016, there were 3 510 workers who were retrenched, worsening the unemployment crisis.

At least 210 333 jobs were made redundant, according to a 2019 ZimStat labour survey.

In terms of distribution, Harare province had the highest proportion of the retrenched population at 40.5% followed by Mashonaland West (12.6%) and Mashonaland East (9.6%). Manicaland and Mashonaland Central had 8.7% and 6.5% respectively while Matabeleland North (2.7%) had the lowest.

The spate of the retrenchments is of great concern to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions as its membership is drastically reduced as a result of the layoffs.

“We are very concerned about these retrenchments,” ZCTU secretary-general Japhet Moyo said. 
“How does the government say the economy is doing well when there are so many job losses? How do they say the economy is doing well when they fail to pay a living wage? There is a contradiction between claims that the economy is doing well when there are so many people losing jobs.”

Moyo said some of the companies are hiding behind the Covid-19 pandemic to brutally cull workers to improve their bottom line.

He said there is little to celebrate on 1 May as the country’s workforce has been decimated by the impact of Covid-19 for the second year running.

Moyo added that this year’s Workers’ Day comes at a time when employees are retiring into poverty because of the failure by the government to provide social safety nets and a decent pension.

He however said the day remains important as it highlights the painful struggle of the worker in Zimbabwe.

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