(24 April 2018, source: www.herald.co.zw)
Last week Zimbabwe made a lot of international headlines. Mostly these were for the right reasons and one controversial reason. The right reasons were for its breakthroughs in its engagement agenda. Zimbabwe’s flag flew side by side with the Union Jack at Zimbabwe House in London as the two came together to celebrate Zimbabwe’s Independence and National Day.
Zimbabwe and Britain’s relationship has always been topsy-turvy. One could describe the two countries as having been “frenemies” (friendly enemies). That said, we were glad at seeing Harriet Baldwin and Dr Sibusiso B Moyo toasting to Zimbabwe and the people drinking to it. This moved the relationship to the old territory of friendship. Within the following two days the friendship was completed by the meeting between Boris Johnson and Dr SB Moyo. What a week.
These were the reasons to celebrate, but then there was the controversial reasons to defend. The striking nurses were fired en masse. There was divided opinion. Some supported this fully. Some felt it was the return of hard-line politics. Some, like this writer, felt that this confrontation between the new authorities and unions was inevitable and the decision by the Government to asset its authority unavoidable.
Unionism is generally politics. It also plays political games and most unionists have ended up in big league politics. And unions should not be allowed to dictate to governments because there should only be one authority in the land. Institutions are there to keep that authority in check, but it should be one authority with its pillars as well as checks and balances.
The moment President Mnangagwa said; “Our system of economic organisation will incorporate elements of market economy in which enterprise is encouraged, protected and allowed just and merited rewards,” was defining. From that moment the power and strength of the unions had to be reduced. This is because capital was being offered space to flourish. Now as neoliberal as it may sound, unionism struggles to co-exist with free market economics. There is just not enough space for both. This is exactly what Margaret Thatcher found out.
In that quoted line in his inaugural speech, President Mnangagwa had unleashed a free market economy in Zimbabwe. Yes, there is that interaction with State enterprises and parastatals, but even those are now going to be run like commercial entities. The labour market needs to change in tandem, with this new thrust. So the nurses’ strike came at a time when a clear message needed to be sent that unions will never be allowed to have a stranglehold over the economy again. This is an ideological position which is in line with the, “Zimbabwe is open for business” mantra. The labour market cannot stay unreformed when both the political and economic system are being reformed.
The fact is clear that the Zimbabwe Nurses Association (ZINA) had a legitimate grievance. They had been promised their allowances in 2010 and had waited for eight years for them. For the first time in nearly a decade, they were going to be given their money. Even the Government of National Unity could not give them that money since the promises. Tendai Biti and his $217 in the account had a broke treasury so he failed to honour the promises. But after an eight-year failure by the previous regimes, the new Harare administration said it was clearing the debt in two days. The money was moved and everything was just left to nurses accessing their money a day after the holiday. They still refused to go back to work to save lives. They knew that every second mattered in the health sector because lives could be saved. But they still put lives at risk by refusing to go back until that money hit their accounts. The Government had to be decisive. That decision is transformative on the labour market and unionism.
Nurses just gave the opportunity for the State to confront and reduce the power of the unions. Free market does not operate in an environment of labour market rigidity. This is part of the reasons why zisco and Air Zimbabwe are unattractive to investors.
These are enterprises whose major debt overhang is wage arrears for people who did not work, but are being paid for being on the books. Anywhere else they would have been laid off the moment there was no job for them. But they were kept on and walk to the workstation to clock in and go back home and expect a wage for it.
While its not their fault, they are in this place the new dispensation should reform the labour laws and practice to re-orient them towards a free market economy attractive to investment. The firing of the nurses should be seen as a warning shot that we will never have more of the same in the market. Zanu-PF is very likely to make an adjustment in its constitution because all claims of socialism are beginning to sound hollow when we are running a free market economy. The only thing that will remain is “comrade”.
If reduction of union power increases employment, then let’s all embrace it. The ZCTU used to have a lot of power. That made sense then because the company owners were a certain race and class while the labourers were another race and class. The powerful race was exploitative towards the other. Calling for the reduction of union power is not calling for the return of servitude. Laws should be in place to protect the workers from that, but at the same time unions should not have so much power to paralyse the country any moment they choose to.
They should not allow themselves to be used as pawns in a high-stake political game towards elections. If unions operate more responsibly they are unlikely to force the government’s hand to push controversial reforms. But if they act the way we saw ZINA acting then reforms are going to come and they will be not only be wide, they will also be deep. It’s better to be in a job and not in a union than to be in a union and jobless.
If the Zimbabwe economy is going to improve there is a need to reform the labour market. That includes reducing the powers of the unions. Decent wages have to be paid and people should be paid for their labour, but unionism is an industry in itself and there are political sharks that abuse the unions. We saw it in Hwange and we saw it with nurses’ strike. Mr Doug Coltart was one such.
The level of wages being paid should be linked to how a company is performing. That way it is in everyone’s best interests to make it work. Both unions and governmental influence on the labour market is too much.
But the Government was right to employ its strikebreaking techniques against ZINA. This is because the power of the unions should be balanced with the interests of the public as well as the interests of the country. The idea is not to reduce the rights of the workers, but the power of the labour mandarins to hold the country at ransom. The best reform in anything is that which comes from within.
If the unions adopt a less aggressive approach, they are likely to avoid enforced reforms. This is because Zimbabwe is trying to attract investment right now. So there is no way trade unions should be allowed to have a monopoly on power. That is why VP Chiwenga’s move was the first throw of the dice towards reducing union power. In all major countries, unionism is in serious decline. In Zimbabwe, there is also only one way for it to go; down.
Neither the employers nor the employees should have a monopoly on power. Zimbabwe has no competitive labour markets at the moment. But the unions continue to agitate for higher incomes which cannot be sustained by the economic realities of both country and company. There is no investor who will invest in a country where strikes are the order of the day and production is disrupted anytime there is a political activity somewhere.
Labour unions are so focussed on the people that are employed. They have no concerns whatsoever for the unemployed because they don’t pay subscriptions. But a government has more focus on fairness and especially the social plight of the unemployed. In these power dynamics, unions cannot be allowed to be too powerful. This is what allows them the audacity to be selfish and demand wages above the inflation rate and wages beyond a budget as well as incomes which are not economically sustainable.
Workers need a voice, but more importantly they need a job. There should be equality at work. For that to happen there should be jobs in the first place. But capital being the coward it is, it can only be attracted if we reform our labour markets, starting with reducing the power of the unions.