EDITORIAL/Dark day for labour relations
AT the stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court on Friday last week, dismantled the pillar of job security that has protected workers from unjust dismissal from employment and opened the floodgates for violation of any rights workers could claim in terms of the country’s Labour Act.
Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku, together with four other judges, unanimously ruled that the common law position placing employees and employers on an equal footing subsisted and consequently employers could lawfully terminate workers’ contracts any time without offering them packages, provided they are given at least three months notice.
This effectively annulled all provisions of the Labour Act, which protect workers against unfair dismissal. Companies no longer require government approval to retrench as they can now simply give notice of termination.
Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, Prisca Mupfumira, said government had already been flooded by complaints from workers who immediately received dismissal letters soon after the judgment.
This, surely, is a travesty of justice.
Zimbabwe is a signatory to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions and should move swiftly, through a presidential proclamation, with ratification of this by Parliament soon after, to correct the aberration that has resulted from this judgment.
We believe this development cannot wait for the proposed amendment of labour laws. The ILO clearly stipulates that termination of an employment relationship can be traumatic for workers and loss of income directly impacts on them and their families’ well-being.
Admittedly, there is a gradual move towards employment flexibility and more workers are facing involuntary termination of employment due to changing economic dynamics.
While this is a necessary measure in certain instances for businesses to remain operational, ILO standards on termination of employment have established a balance between maintaining the employer’s right to dismiss workers for valid reasons and ensuring that such dismissals are fair and are used as a last resort, and that they do not have a disproportionate negative impact on workers.
We are of the view that Zimbabwe should maintain the principle that the employment of a worker should not be terminated unless there is a valid reason for such termination connected with the worker’s capacity, conduct or the operational requirements of an undertaking, establishment or service.
There should also be room for negotiations between employer and employee when such dismissal is predicated upon the performance of a company.
The judgment has, however, left workers with absolutely no rights and given employers the carte blanche to fire workers even for invalid reasons like union membership or participation in union activities, filing of a complaint against an employer, race, colour, sex, marital status, family responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin, temporary absence due to illness, or absence from work during maternity leave.
The employers do not have an obligation to state reasons for such dismissal. The workers no longer have the right to defend themselves against any allegations, as these will not even be raised in their dismissal.
Indeed this is a dark day for labour relations.