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Educate workers’ committees

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Following a recent contribution on retrenchment, a concerned chief executive wrote to me seeking clarification on the role of the workers’ committee. From the facts supplied by the chief executive, it would appear that his company has been having serious problems with an unco-operative team of worker representatives.
I shall not go into detail about the role of the workers’ committee as it is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I will refer my reader to the legal instruments that regulate the formation and functions of workers’ committees – the Labour Relations (Workers’ Committees) (General) Regulations, Statutory Instrument 372 of 1985 as read with sections 23, 24 and 25A of the Labour Act, Chapter 28:01.
I shall however attempt, albeit briefly, to highlight those instances where worker representatives have erred and misinterpreted the purpose of their existence. A workers’ committee is nominated and elected by workers to represent them in discussions or negotiations with their employer. Sadly, most worker representatives misguidedly believe that it is fashionable to disagree with management or make unreasonable demands.
Such a confrontational, winner-take-all mentality makes workplaces ungovernable and a lot of time is spent in trying to resolve conflicts.
From my experience in a number of organisations, the quality of worker representatives leaves a lot to be desired. In most cases, with the exception of banks and other financial institutions, the average level of education among workers is still relatively low. There is still a tendency among workers to choose the most vocal and outspoken but semi-literate workers to represent them. Due to limited education, these representatives cannot interpret labour laws for the benefit of the workers they represent, thus rendering the quality of their leadership questionable. Such representatives cannot match their well-qualified and experienced management counterparts in works council meetings and other fora.
This relatively low level of literacy among the worker representatives also means that they cannot interpret the balance sheet or profit and loss account of the company, let alone understand the effects of the world economic recession on their company! Concepts such as capacity utilisation become even more perplexing to unsophisticated worker representatives.
Five years ago, a company in the agro-industrial sector re-branded after losing its franchise. The company’s employees, led by the workers’ committee, demanded retrenchment packages and the right to be re-employed by the “new” company. Despite frantic efforts by management to explain that the change in name would not affect anyone’s employment status, the employees embarked on a week-long illegal collective job action that paralysed the company’s operations.
I have witnessed cases where worker representatives choose to deliberately stifle management initiatives, however reasonable these might be.
Works council meetings are turned into battlefields where workers take aim and shoot down management proposals. Such intransigence is self-defeating.
A manufacturing company in Harare recently sought to introduce special measures to avert retrenchment.
The company engaged its workers in several discussions for close to three months but workers refused to co-operate. The matter could not be resolved at conciliation stage and had to be referred to an independent arbitrator.
The arbitrator, after careful consideration of written and oral hearing by the parties, threw out the employees’ claim, not before he lambasted the worker representatives for their belligerent and uncompromising attitude in their dealings with management.
When an employee has committed an offence and is brought to a disciplinary hearing, most worker representatives wrongly believe that their duty is to defend the accused employee even on an open-and-shut case. Instead of looking at facts as they are, they find flimsy reasons to complicate and frustrate the disciplinary process. Employees who are clearly guilty are left to go scot-free.
Worker representatives, like other employees, are not above the law and should observe company rules and regulations. A growing number of disciplinary cases involving workers’ committee members have been dealt with by the courts. In the case of Chidare vs Chibuku Breweries (2005) the Labour Court upheld the dismissal of a workers’ committee chairman for participating in an illegal strike. The court found the appellant to have been arrogant and insubordinate to his employer. In a similar ruling in the case of Zesa versus Mare (2005), the Supreme Court reiterated the fact that worker representatives are first and foremost employees of the organisation, and should conduct themselves within the framework of existing rules and procedures.
The solution to all these problems lies in having worker representatives who are clear on their rights and obligations.
The worker-management relationship is one of “give-and-take”.
Ill-informed and overzealous worker representatives have no place in workplaces of the future. workers’ committees should be adequately trained in labour law, leadership skills and basic business concepts.
For the sake of industrial harmony, it is in the employers’ interest to play their part and invest in the training of their worker representatives.

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