Opinion divided over ZCTU crisis
THE Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) means different things to different people.
As far as workers are concerned, it is the voice for the downtrodden, and a pain in the capitalists’ backside.
Naturally, it is an inconvenience to the capitalists who would want to make huge margins by keeping the cost of labour at the barest minimum.
For President Robert Mugabe’s government, it almost cost them political power after it gave birth to ZANU-PF’s fiercest rival, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999.
Two weeks ago, the Financial Gazette reported that the 108 000 member ZCTU was reeling under heavy debts amid shrinking revenues, which trade unionists feared could force it into “extinction”.
Trade unions survive on subscriptions from affiliates, who in turn are supported by individual subscription paying members.
Many of ZCTU’s affiliates have hit crisis point.
Reports say over 75 percent of its 34 affiliates have been defaulting on subscriptions to the mother union, which says it is on the verge of collapse.
About 85 percent of ZCTU’s revenue is from donors, with only 15 percent coming from subscriptions.
But support from donors has tumbled over the years.
ZCTU’s annual income retreated to US$366 077 during the 10 months ended October 31, 2015, from US$1,7 million during the same period in 2011.
It generated US$1,7 million in 2011 and spent US$2,1 million during the same year, creating a US$337 416 deficit.
ZCTU achieved a surplus in 2012 and 2013, before plunging into the red in 2014 and 2015, when deficits reached US$358 711 and US$236 922 respectively.
The accumulated deficit was US$1 million at the end of September last year.
Another major worry is ZCTU’s rising debt, which has ballooned from US$78,000 in 2011 to US$1,4 million.
In the event that the deterioration goes unchecked, ZCTU risks losing its assets, including its most prized possession, the multi-storey Gorlon House in Harare.
The taxman, cumulatively owed US$99 764 as of October 31 last year in Pay As You Earn, is one of ZCTU’s main creditors.
A poll of leading analysts canvassed divide opinion over the relevance of the labour movement.
Pro-capital pundits hit out at ZCTU this week, arguing that the trade union authored its own downfall by pushing for higher wages in industries, which wages have driven companies out of business.
Independent economist, John Robertson, slammed the country’s oldest trade union for “agitating for high wages” and “threatening” firms with “strike action”.
While agreeing that there were still cases whereby workers would require trade union protection, Robertson observed that there were many workers outside trade unions who were successfully negotiating for pay rise without “blackmailing” companies.
“The ZCTU gets its income from its members, who are the unions. When executives of trade unions agitate for higher wages they get more revenue to run their unions. But they have been implicated in the job of forcing industries to pay higher wages, which has destroyed companies,” he said.
“The trade unions have destroyed part of their incomes by forcing companies to close. They have forced industries to downsize and they are partly responsible for making Zimbabwe uncompetitive. They have to be responsible and say ‘we want to reduce wages’,” added Roberson.
Asked if the closure of ZCTU would not have far reaching implications on working conditions and workers’ rights, Robertson said this would not be the case.
“There are many workers in this country who are not members of trade unions. It will be wrong to say trade unions are very essential. They threaten companies with strike action. If you threaten them that is when employers get resentful and say can I mechanise this job? A lot of jobs have been mechanised because of trade union activities. Just do your job well and (negotiate for a salary hike). If you don’t do your job well they will find a machine to replace you. But there may be some people that may need extra protection from employers. Sometimes employers need to be told that you have used your influence too much. But it will not be a tragedy if unions close in this country,” said Robertson.
Unemployment, which Robertson blamed on the push for higher wages, has spiraled out of control, with estimates suggesting that 90 percent of the country’s able-bodied, many of them highly qualified professionals, are out of formal employment.
Trade union statistics indicate that from 585 000 members during the boom times of the 1990s, ZCTU’s subscribers have declined to about 108 000, following the catastrophic closure of companies and widespread retrenchments.
About 5,7 million of the unemployed have sought respite in the informal sector.
This has starved unions, including ZCTU, of the much-needed income to fund operations, and triggered fears of potential collapse.
Sectors worst affected by the job carnage in Zimbabwe include agriculture, which has lost 280 000 jobs in one and half decades.
Only 20 000 workers are still employed in the agricultural sector, from 300 000 in 2000 when government embarked on controversial land reforms that decimated crop output.
The clothing and textile industries’ unions have seen their membership drop to about 8 000, from about 35 000 during boom times.
Radical left wing commentators are of the view that ZCTU’s role remains vital, warming that a weak trade union could only lead to the rampant exploitation of workers.
They said ZCTU was important for campaigning for various freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, which government sometimes undermine.
As far as this school of thought is concerned, the closure of ZCTU would not only be a blow to workers but also “unprecedented”.
Fears are that should the ZCTU collapse, employers would assume unbridled power to exploit and fire workers with no one holding them to account.
One would not be far off the mark to argue that job losses have already been haunting workers, possibly because ZCTU has been weakened.
In July 2015, the Supreme Court passed a ruling that empowered companies to fire workers on three-months notice without compensation, sparking unprecedented dismissals.
The ZCTU estimates that 38 000 workers have been forced out of their jobs since the judgment was passed.
Professional Educators Union of Zimbabwe president, Wilson Makanyaire, said a troubled and weakened trade union movement in Zimbabwe could spark exploitation.
“Employers will be free to exploit without anyone holding them to account,” he told the Financial Gazette’s Companies & Markets.
“It does not mean that all employers exploit workers. But many of them generally are after profit and they don’t consider who brings the profits. By demanding higher wages, the ZCTU is not being selfish. The ZCTU looks at the poverty datum line (PDL) and says no one should be paid below the PDL. It also looks at the qualifications of workers and say people with such qualifications must be paid so much. They are only looking at these issues,” said Makanyaire.
Another analyst said the role of trade unions goes beyond just protection of workers’ rights.
“They do not only represent workers but they play an important role in economic development, such as making policy proposals. Through the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe, ZCTU has produced documents like Beyond ESAP and Beyond the Enclave,” the analyst said.
“The role of the ZCTU remains very important. Trade unions are vanguards of economies but when economies are weak it affects the strength of the trade union. In our case, we need to mobilise the informal sector because much of the economy has been informalised. It will be unprecedented if ZCTU closed because that has never happened anywhere in the world,” he said.
ZANU-PF is one of the constituencies that could shed crocodile tears should ZCTU twist in the wind.
ZANU-PF has been at odds with the union ever since the formation of the MDC, which it spearheaded.
After working together during the first decade of independence, ZCTU and ZANU-PF have fallen out largely due to divergent views on how the country should be governed.
The labour movement has been among the most vocal bodies advocating against shrinking freedoms and violation of workers’ rights in Zimbabwe.
A weak ZCTU could give ZANU-PF the freedom to “prop” up pliant unions, said analysts.
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