Workers Day: Surging poverty, waning labour rights in Zimbabwe dampen May 1 commemorations

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By Alois Vinga

FOR Tempson Sajeni burning the midnight oil to attain high grades was an act of wisdom imparted to him by his widowed mother. He did more than enough to pass his Advanced Level examinations and immediately enrolled for a Bachelor of Education Degree.

His was the ray of hope to transform his family’s farm life –  into some middle class of sorts.

Despite having risen through the ranks to become a school headmaster, his earnings of US$270 and ZiG 1 700 are not enough to turn around the family’s fortunes let alone placing a decent meal before them.

Such are the circumstances bedeviling the country’s working class whose majority has little to reflect on as the world marks the Workers Day Commemorations.

A brief survey by revealed that salaries across the economic sectors are still lagging behind the cost of living peg. As of December 31 2023, the private security guards were paid US$140, the transport sector US$195, the commercial sector US$295 and the clothing sector US$127.

The Commercial sector minimums stood at US$247, Agriculture US$70,00 with 60% payable in ZiG currency and 40% in US$, Ferrochrome sector US$300, Electronics US$232,20, Vehicle Manufacturing and Automotive US$252.The NGOs sector had the highest peg at US$454 while plastics manufacturing stood at US$150, Catering US$300 and Energy sector at US$215.

This is despite that the independent Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) placed the family basket at around US$490 during the period.

Most basics are being charged in the US$ with expenses such as rents being exclusively in hard currency – expenses that the paltry earnings struggle to meet. This is worsened by the fact that most employers prefer settling salary payments in local currency.

The struggle is even worse for the younger generation whose chances to secure a job are next to zero. According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat) around 2, 3 million youths are Not in Employment, Education or Training (NEET).

Indeed, May Day is a historic symbol for Zimbabwe since the workers struggle significantly shaped the country’s terrain resulting in the formation of the MDC political party over two decades ago in a bid to up the ante in turning around the country’s fortunes.

But today, the commemorations have lost the past mojo due to the confusing economic landscape which has seen the government moving from one policy framework to the other even without proper consultations via the social dialogue platform, the Tripartite Negotiating Forum (TNF) which remains a toothless dog in the eyes of ordinary workers.

The country’s working class has borne the impact of escalating inflation, currency changes with the just introduced ZiG being the sixth currency since 2008 when the Zimbabwe dollar collapsed amid a 5 billion percent hyperinflation.

Pension funds have lost significant value with organs such as the National Social Security Authority (NSSA) doing very little to protect retired workers after sustaining the culture of corruption over the years.

Zimbabwe is unfortunately among the world’s top five most informalised economies further exposing the majority of workers to precarious and lowly-paying jobs.

“The informalisation is gradually eliminating any hope for industrialisation locally as value chains are decimated by informal middlemen, who source commodities from South Africa and China while undercutting local producers, who pay taxes and support thousands of jobs,” economist Victor Boroma said recently.

A woman only identified as Grace shared her experiences after losing her job at Metro Peach following the shareholder’s decision to sell off the entity to a new owner decrying the tough working environment.

“There is not even a conducive labour environment to discuss in Zimbabwe. The situation is so tough and as workers, we tend to put up with any contract at hand. We often work for very long and unpaid hours because there is nowhere else to get another job. Fellow women are preyed on by their superiors and they can’t even report such offences for fear of losing their jobs.

“You won’t dare think about embarking on any form of industrial action because there is just no one to complain to,” she said.

A legal expert who spoke to our publication anonymously decried the breakdown of Labour Laws in meaningfully protecting the workers.

“For employees to embark on strike across the sectors, workers have to first engage their employer through internal remedies which are allowed a maximum of six weeks before engaging on the next step. Thereafter it is deemed at law that internal remedies have broken down, providing room to approach the Labour Ministry.

“There is no time frame allowed for the Ministry to respond and if they choose to remain silent the process cannot go any far and this limits workers from exercising their right,” he said.

Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) Secretary General Japhet Moyo said the challenges facing workers have not shifted over the years.

“The future doesn’t look any better at the moment and all the signs show that it is going to be very difficult for everyone, especially that the country didn’t receive adequate rains. The drought is going to exacerbate the situation.

“At the moment opportunities are very limited for many workers as if Zimbabwe is for a certain click of individuals.

“Poverty is rampant amongst the working poor with wages way below the PDL. The statistics available indicate that the majority of workers are in the informal sector where standards and working conditions are not regulated,” he said.