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"Shock waves from Zimbabwe's six year-old economic reform programme continue to rumble across the national political and economic landscape. In the past, government proved adept at softening their impact. But recently the after-shocks of reform have picked up momentum, boosted by a rising tide of worker militancy born of deteriorating living standards and disgust with prevailing labour relations practices. ..." (jbv)

vol 13 no 1

Striking back: Worker militancy in Zimbabwe
Richard Saunders

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 1, November 1997
Page 18



Richard Saunders is, as always, on the move. He is currently editor of Southern African Labour Now, the ILO newsletter on labour and employment for southern Africa.

Shock waves from Zimbabwe's six year-old economic reform programme continue to rumble across the national political and economic landscape. In the past, government proved adept at softening their impact. But recently the after-shocks of reform have picked up momentum, boosted by a rising tide of worker militancy born of deteriorating living standards and disgust with prevailing labour relations practices.

The past year has been a landmark for Zimbabwean labour relations. Since June the country has been rocked by a series of strikes, some of them violent, involving more than 100,000 workers. Sectors hit include finance, clothing and textile, construction and cement, agriculture, hotel, transport, security, telecommunications, services and municipal employees. According to columnists in Zimbabwe's financial weeklies, the labour actions - the first of which coincided with Zimbabwe's annual mid-year season of collective bargaining - were unprecedented in their militancy, number and overall disruptive impact.

Several months on, labour disturbances have continued to roll through workplaces and sectors across the country, fueled by well-publicized victories in the form of concessions from employers on wage and bonus packages. The cheap-labour policy built into ZANU(PF)'s Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) is now showing signs of cracking under pressure from below. But it is not clear what new order might come to replace it. Currently, none of the parties with an interest in labour market stability - government, national workers organizations and employers associations - have the capacity or credibility to establish a new vision for labour relations, just when it is needed most. So where is the current round of militancy likely to lead?

Labour Militancy on the Rise

After several years of struggling to find their feet in a liberalized labour market which included new collective bargaining structures that tended to favour management, Zimbabwean workers are growing increasingly impatient, desperate - and militant. Since early 1996, workers in the public and private sectors have increasingly risen to challenge employers, eschewing negotiations with bosses and walking out in support of demands for higher wages and better work conditions. In addition, public sector workers - who until this year have had no legal means of negotiating binding agreements with their government employer, and for whom all strike actions were labeled "illegal" - made the harmonization of public and private sector labour laws a central issue of concern.

In both sectors strikers have posted important and well-publicized victories. These, in turn, have helped fuel spiralling labour militancy.

The current round of labour unrest first gathered momentum in early 1996, following a series of actions by workers in the private sector and public sector parastatals. Concessions won over wage increases in those early conflicts sparked actions by workers in Zimbabwe's large public service, to whom government had promised substantial increases and post adjustment bonuses following years of relatively uncompetitive pay scales. When the state delayed and then failed to deliver on these scales in mid1996, public servants took to the streets in an unprecedented work stoppage.

In August and September last year, as many as 160,000 government employees walked out for two weeks and endured threats of summary dismissal and court cases, in a successful, direct challenge to government intransigence in the workplace. That strike, organized by many of ZANU(PF)'s own increasingly disillusioned constituent members, shook the party profoundly. For the first time, Zimbabweans witnessed senior party and government officials being denounced and harangued in public by thousands of public servants. As tension grew and the threat of the strike spreading emerged, government backed down. Earlier negotiated increases adding up to 30% were awarded to the public servants - though not without further delays.

In addition, public sector strikers won key concessions from government over the restructuring of labour relations for their sector. In effect, they achieved the right to legally-recognized bargaining and grievance structures - a basic workplace right that had been denied Zimbabwe's public employees since independence. Until this concession, there were no standardized, legally-binding labour relations structures governing collective bargaining and related activities in the country, and public servants' representative organizations enjoyed only informal and convoluted relations with the state.

But the civil servants strike in August-September did not mark a complete defeat for the state. In the wake of the strike settlement, a more militant and embattled section of the public service including nurses, junior doctors and health technicians - those whose personal health and safety have been seriously jeopardized by ESAP-inspired cuts in state health budgets - persisted with their own walkout up to December. This brought the public health system crashing to a halt, in a brave attempt to extract promises from government around the improvement of health care delivery and conditions of service. Eventually they were beaten back by the state, which recovered from the earlier setback to play an effective divide-and-rule game with different sections of the public service workforce.

In the end, a two-day general strike called in November by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) in support of the healthworkers failed miserably, scuttled by poor union organization and the lack of information and consensus among (non)participating labour structures and workers. While the fiasco of the abortive walk-out led to sharp and constructive debate within the ZCTU about how to re-organize the labour centre for more democratic and effective decision-making, it also had the pronounced effect of undermining the ZCTU's credibility among shopfloor workers and the general public. The failure of the November strike generally removed the ZCTU as a key player in the ongoing private sector labour unrest of 1997, and opened further space for action by lower-level union structures - and shopfloor militancy.

Tension and Violence with Mixed Results

This year's labour unrest - often openly echoing the demands of public servants in late 1996 - has been characterized by locally-organized actions seeking significant boosts in incomes, and reform of worker-management relations aimed at levelling the existing heavily-lopsided playing field. The scope and extent of labour actions have been impressive, but the results mixed.

In April, one of the country's largest banks, Standard Chartered Bank, was shut for a week when workers went out in protest over management's unilateral changes to bonus allocation measures. In the same month, vehicle assembly workers struck over discrepancies and delays in the payment of productivity bonuses. Salary and bonus disputes spread in May and June, as collective bargaining got underway. When negotiations got bogged down, the strike wave erupted in July.

Government responded with pleas for workers to follow the route of negotiation and industrial conciliation. When this met with derision from strikers - who cited the uneven and unfavourable terrain of labour relations as a factor in their actions - the state resorted to threats, and then baton-and-tear gas charges by riot police.

Some employers were even less understanding. In one incident, eighteen striking security guards were shot and hospitalized by a company official, as they marched unarmed on management offices demanding increases to their monthly wage packet of only CAD$85.

The cycle of tension and violence moved up some notches as the result of worker frustration. In May, workers at a Harare transport and removals company locked-in management over a salary dispute and allegations of racism in the workplace, and chased away union sector representatives as "sell-outs" looking for weak compromises with management. A week earlier, in a bitter dispute over injury and death benefits, they had dumped in management offices the coffin of a fellow worker killed on the job.

In July, 2000 striking construction workers smashed company vehicles, and looted and vandalized offices, at a brick-making factory on the outskirts of Harare. The following month, strikers at a Lonrho mine in Arcturus set fire to electricity installations in the course of a protest over company changes to housing benefits, which had been unilaterally effected - and then withdrawn - by Lonrho at eight of its mines across the country. More recently, groups among the 40,000 striking commercial farmworkers vented their frustration by damaging and looting property, and physically threatening employers.

A Reflection of Hardship

Government appears to have been taken aback by the wide reach and militancy and of labour actions this year. Unionists and employers have not.

"The writing has been on the wall for some time that these strikes were coming, but no action was taken," noted ZCTU Secretary General Morgan Tsvangirai. "What we see as strikes is just a reflection of the hardships people are facing. This is also a result of lack of interest by employers in taking collective bargaining seriously."

Business leaders now publicly concede Tsvangirai's points concerning the hidden hand of ESAP and impoverishment in the current strikes. Privately, many also agree with the unions' view that poor and inflexible company management has been a complicating factor in labour unrest.

Under ESAP workers real incomes have plummeted by 60%. According to the ZCTU most workers' real wages are now only one-quarter of what they were at independence in 1980. Worse still, formal sector employment has been stagnant since 1990, if not shrinking - the ZCTU estimates as many as 70,000 have been retrenched under ESAP "rationalization", and many more positions have been "casualized" and otherwise devalued. Meanwhile, each year approximately 300,000 school graduates come onto the national job market. The combined effect of these factors on the national labour market is sharply negative.

Yet at the same time, the cost of living for ordinary Zimbabweans has headed off in the other direction. The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe estimates that the basic minimum income requirement for a family of three is approximately CAD$155 - an amount considerably above the minimum wage in most sectors. Most semi-skilled workers now earn about $100 a month. However, many on the lower end of the scale - for example, farmworkers and security guards who struck for better pay in September - earn as little as CAD$2 a day for full-time, arduous and dangerous work.

Against this backdrop, this year's demands by strikers for wage increases of between 30% and 50% - and acceptance of rises of 25% to 30% - were not unreasonable. As even the business press has noted, a 51% wage increase for most workers would have only just returned them to the real wage levels enjoyed in 1990. Yet even that now seems unlikely in the near future. For its part, union bodies like the ZCTU called for salary increases of only 25% this year, a figure designed to keep workers' wages flat on a par with inflation.

Employers, on the other hand, have pleaded poverty in collective bargaining sessions. They argue that ESAP has adversely affected them as well, in the form of declining markets, stiffer competition and skyrocketing costs exacerbated by continued high real interest rates. And it is true that many businesses have been negatively effected by the reform programme they vociferously demanded barely six years ago. Indeed more than 100 medium and large companies (along with 10,000 jobs) have been liquidated since the start of 1996 - with more than forty firms going under in 1997 alone.

But for most companies the main problem has not been higher wage packets - in real terms, average wage bills have generally declined since 1990 - but rather shrinking markets and poor management.

A stark reflection of poor management has been the continuing inattention given to labour relations by most firms. This has been another key factor in the recent rounds of public and private sector strikes, according to those shopfloor workers and union affiliates who have led the actions. Some conservative business pundits have echoed this view, noting that worker-management relations have steadily deteriorated under liberalized labour market regulations, with management in particular to blame for preferring to react to labour crises - rather than to anticipate and prevent them.

"Ungrateful bosses", the ZCTU added, have "refused to address the plight of the almost destitute majority workers" and "kept the colonial mentality of cheap labour".

An Uncertain Future

An important lesson learned by Zimbabwean workers in the past year is that labour militancy frequently pays off, whereas lopsided bargaining with management does not. In the recent past, weaknesses in the collective bargaining process - as well as within national trade union structures - have pushed thousands of workers to look for alternative forms of expressing their demands and grievances. With hard-nosed labour action in the public sector in 1996 having been seen to produce immediate and positive results, labour militancy has become increasingly common in a wide range of other sectors as a means of obtaining goals previously pursued through collective bargaining. In the short term at least, this process has led to some much-needed relief for workers in terms of significant increases in nominal - if not real - incomes.

But where the continuing bouts of worker activism are likely to lead the Zimbabwean labour movement in the future, is another matter.

The current "concessions" by employers around wage packets and bonuses - which nonetheless remain sub-economic for thousands of households - are fragile ones, particularly in the context of Zimbabwe's continuing high rates of inflation and rising consumer price indices. While wage increases of 2530% have been achieved, settlements to labour actions this year have not included, for the most part, provisions for indexing, pension and other benefits or job security. Nor have they established stronger structures for workplace democracy, or more transparent and even-handed bargaining procedures in most cases.

In this sense the important gains marked by public sector workers since last year - for example, the entrenchment of new collective bargaining rights, structures and procedures - were absent from most of the strike actions this year. This is largely due to the wildcat and spontaneous nature of many of these stoppages and strikes, and the absence of union involvement and leadership in these actions. Indeed this absence was so pronounced, as to prompt the director of the Employers Confederation of Zimbabwe, Peter Kunjeku, to claim that union leaders had "lost control of their workers".

This may have been true. But what Kunjeku did not realize was that the loss of control over the strikers occurred long before the strikes began. And for shopfloor workers, the national labour movement, employers and government alike, this reality will perhaps be more destabilizing for labour relations in the long term, than the current wave of strikes has been in the short.

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Printable Version

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