Zimbabwe: outcry over fast-tracked labour reforms

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The Zimbabwean government has come under attack from trade unions and business groups for fast-tracking labour reforms which ignore the contributions of Zimbabwe’s social partners.

Both business and labour argue that the principles agreed to in the last five years at the Tripartite Negotiating Forum (TNF), Zimbabwe’s social dialogue platform, were markedly different from the draft bill that was eventually tabled in parliament.

Observers say that amendments to the Labour Act were rushed through parliament in response to a Supreme Court ruling in July, which allowed employers to terminate contracts with just three months’ notice and without having to pay out any severance pay or benefits.

Previously, any employer wishing to retrench five or more workers had to first negotiate with the National Employment Council and secure an agreement on the terms and conditions of the redundancies. If such an agreement was not achieved, employers were obliged to reach a negotiated settlement with the National Retrenchment Board.

It is thought that a staggering 20,000 to 30,000 jobs have been lost in the wake of July’s Supreme Court ruling, with business owners taking advantage of the lack of restrictions when firing workers in a bid to cut costs.

The job losses mean that even more people will be funneled into the informal economy, at a time when the government has launched an extended attack on street vendors.

The new Labour Act was supposed to protect workers from further job cuts, but employers are complaining that it overcompensates employees fired over disciplinary issues.

Employers must now compensate workers dismissed using the Supreme Court ruling with two weeks’ pay for every year served. Business owners have described this clause as “crippling”.

In response to the criticism, President Robert Mugabe has hinted that the Labour Act will undergo further amendments but the country’s trade unions have accused the government of pandering to business leaders.

“We know they intend to deal with specific issues to deal with concerns of business while there are many other issues which they are not in a hurry to address,” Japhet Moyo, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), told Equal Times.

The ZCTU leader said he fears that employers are deliberately stalling the payment of the mandatory severance packages in anticipation of yet another, this time pro-business, amendment to the Labour Act.

“Employers are not acting on the amended law in the hope that the government will amend the law again and they (employers) get away without paying any packages. The implication is that it will push workers to demonstrate because 30,000 workers are still waiting to be paid and we might find ourselves mobilising again,” he said.



Executive Director of the Employers’ Confederation of Zimbabwe (EMCOZ), John Mufukare, said that while social partners have been engaged in labour law reforms for the past five years in a bid to make the country more attractive to investors and stimulate the economy, some provisions of the Act have done the opposite.

“We sincerely hope that the law will be further amended as a matter of urgency,” Mufukare said, explaining that the classification of seasonal workers whose contracts are repeatedly renewed as permanent is particularly worrisome to business, although for unions this clause is a major victory as it protects workers from casualisation. “There are a number of inconsistencies which make us quite unhappy,” he added.

Labour and Economic Research Institute of Zimbabwe (LEDRIZ) Director Godfrey Kanyenze told Equal Times that while the amended Labour Act has helped by giving employers the same right as workers to give three months’ notice, it did not meet the expectations of either business or labour.

He described the government’s approach as “arbitrary” and “unilateral”, urging the government to go back to the TNF and resurrect the discussions on the Labour Act.

“The new law must consider the workers’ security while at the same time also trying to balance it with the flexibility that business is pushing for so that we end up with a negotiated document that treats all partners at par,” he said.

Meanwhile, EMCOZ has since challenged the constitutionality of the Labour Act amendments in the High Court saying they infringe on the rights of employers. The ZCTU, however, has hinted that it will oppose the appeal to protect the interests of Zimbabwe’s workers.