By Takura Zhangazha*
Zimbabwe’s labour movement is in serious trouble and this is not an understatement. Recent Supreme Court rulings have left the Zimbabwean worker with difficult legal options in relation to their rights vis-à-vis those of the employer.
The first to be determined case, Don Nyamande vs ZuvaPetroleum has now been set for an appeal hearing at the constitutional court. Media reports detailing dismissals of workers in the wake of this judgment point to an underlying intention by a number of large companies to summarily (and quickly) dismiss workers.
The second and more recent case, that of the NRZ vsEmployees essentially defines workers allowances as a privilege and not a right.
The ‘shock’, as it has been described by the media, that that these two judgments have wrought on formal workers is completely understandable. Not only because of the difficulty of getting a new or similar job after dismissal, but more because of the seeming lack of fairness to the worker.
Moreso when we take into account the fact that the NRZ case has been long standing and heard against the backdrop of employees protesting and sleeping at company premises in search of a fair deal.
Until the pending appeals are heard and determined or the government amends the Labour Act to either conform to the judgments or change their import, workers can expect their employers to callously handle labour disputes with threats or actual dismissals. And government will play politics while claiming to respect the doctrine of separation of powers.
If there is anything that we can learn from these unfortunate developments is that Zimbabwe is now in a full fledged age of state capitalism/ neo-liberalism or as Naomi Klein ably puts it, ‘disaster capitalism’. And our courts, by default, are interpreting the law within this ideological ambit.
The latter is characterized by the withdrawal of the state from what should be an obligatory role of protecting citizens from the vagaries of the ‘free market’. In this there is rampant privatization of state assets and limitations on the labour rights of workers especially in times of endemic economic crisis. Add to this a deliberately diminished role of trade unions and unionism and you have a recipe for an undemocratic laissez faire economic framework that benefits the already rich, those that are politically connected to the detriment of a majority poor.
Government will however not own up to such an economic policy. As South African academic Patrick Bond puts it in his analysis of his country’s economic policy, our government will ‘talk left, walk right’. Cabinet has already discussed the matter and reports have it that there are some amendments that are going to be made to the Labour Act. The specifics to these amendments are yet be known but it is clear that there are no big ideological questions at play. Government has no intention of changing its overall ‘shock doctrine’ free market economic policy couched on the coattails of state capitalism as derived from the Chinese model.
In light of this unfair reality, the ball is firmly in the labour movements court. It is the struggling Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and its affiliates that has to redefine its agenda in view of the broader disempowering intentions of government. The current period of labour rights activism by default has to come to an end if there are to be countermeasures to the unmitigated state capitalism that we are faced with.
It has to walk the talk on its overall economic vision for the country in its own ideological terms. As far as I can remember, this would be a social democratic macroeconomic template where basic rights to services (education, health, transport, water, electricity and employment) and fair labour laws form the backbone of government policy where it seeks to interact with capital.
In order to be effective, the labour movement has to return to the source, that is the worker. It has to re-organise its representative capacity from the work floor through to affiliates and touch base with young generations of workers and students. All to be done in an organic fashion with direct organising, knowledge production and internal democratic accountability and contestation.
The late 90s solution that had sought to address these challenges via a workers party in the form of the then MDC may still be on the table but it is no longer as serious an option as it should be. Not least because that former workers party has dabbled in so many other alliances and ideological ambiguities, it no longer represents the full interests of workers.
Labour union leaders have to understand that this basically means they have to go back to the drawing board and redraw their priorities in the struggles against this state capitalist reality. To paraphrase the age old words of the Manifesto of the Communist Party (circa 1848), ‘workers of Zimbabwe unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains’.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)