Guest Column: Gibson Nyikadzino

SINCE the beginning of the year, Zimbabwe’s government has been confronted by restive workers and their leadership from different labour unions, either threatening industrial action or alleging incapacitation, citing the high cost of living and a currency that cannot stand economic vagaries.

Zimbabwe’s doctors have since January demanded their salaries be paid in United States dollars or have them pegged at the inter-bank rate to which the government said it does not have the resources.

Government responses to the demands by workers have been cold.

In January, protests ensued after President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced fuel price hikes. To quell the protests, soldiers were deployed to restore order, peace, stability and security, in the end, there were a dozen deaths recorded.

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In some instances, the disputes have spilled to the courts on the lawfulness of threats to strike, or notice to strike and the alleged incapacitation.

Unions have on the other hand accused the courts of being directed, manipulated and open to handholding by the government. Government also accuses labour of dabbling in politics, raising the levels of suspicions and mistrust.

The relationship between labour movements and governments in different epochs has not been a smooth sail, and in Zimbabwe this year alone it has been tense despite the final
establishment of the Tripartite Negotiating Forum (TNF) through an Act signed by the President on June 5.

The TNF seeks to provide a platform for regular and binding dialogue that hopefully would deter industrial actions like strikes and protests by workers before exhausting other avenues.

Before its enactment on June 5, the TNF was established in 1998 and had remained a voluntary and unlegislated chamber in which socio-economic matters were discussed, explained or negotiated by the tripartite partners, comprising government, business and labour.

In essence, social dialogue is a mechanism to solve problems by providing an opportunity to achieve democratic participation, social equity and economic efficiency, at least in the labour market and the economy at large in which different actors are involved. It requires strong parties acting independently for a common good.

Recently, government’s decision to fire over 440 doctors has been interpreted as a determined and calculated attempt to shut space for negotiation. In this respect effective social dialogue cannot be sustained.

Moreso, President Mnangagwa offered a two-day moratorium to have fired doctors return to work without reapplying, an offer the doctors are turning down. Reports are that the decision to offer doctors a “reprieve” came after a deal brokered by church leaders.

The TNF is the platform to make negotiations, concessions and agreements. It is a platform for the workers, employers and government. It certainly does not reserve a seat for the clergy!

Continued strikes and demonstrations by workers have now been interpreted by government as attempts to undermine the State’s “ability to solve economic problems”.

Not so long ago, Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga unilaterally directed the termination of contracts for nurses who had been absent from work, claiming erosion of wages and poor working conditions.

Zimbabwe needs to address fundamentals in its labour market. There is need to depoliticise the social dialogue process and have it managed professionally without resorting to use of power and force by the stakeholders involved.

The country also needs to address the massive trust deficit and come up with a shared socio-economic vision that will lead to a social contract. The social contract will in the short-term manage expectations and set responsibilities of tripartite partners.

Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) president Peter Mutasa has urged the government to look at the TNF as an inclusive platform that promotes social justice, fairness and equity.

While the TNF Act is a positive development, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) supervisory bodies have highlighted that there are still infringements of workers’ rights to strike and demonstrate, intimidation and harassment of unions, their members and leadership.

Zimbabwe, like many other developing countries, is faced with a number of social, economic and political challenges which have resulted in the slowing down of economic growth and in some cases the reversal of some of the gains made since independence.

The South African economy is counted among the best in the region, which is attributed to a well-functioning social dialogue system. In the face of all these, it remains to seen whether social dialogue is sustainable in Zimbabwe’s obtaining environment.

 Gibson Nyikadzino is a media and development analyst. He writes In his personal capacity.