Zimbabwe 2011 – Strangers in the same stream


Two days ago was Workers’ Day, a day born out of the womb of historical struggles of workers and their trade unions for fair employment standards and establishment of culture of human and worker rights.

In 1884, the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions passed a resolution stating that eight hours would constitute a legal day’s work from and after May 1 1886.

It is instructive that this was only six years after the birth of Rhodesia — an artificial nation founded on the principle that black persons could not be classified as full human beings deserving equal treatment.

Last Sunday, May 1 was a national holiday in more than 80 countries and is also unofficially celebrated in many other countries.

The observance of this day by many post-colonial states is not accidental but reflects the inextricable link between the struggles of working people and the general civil rights movements that gave birth to independence.

After 31 years of independence, the creative and often hostile tensions between employers and the working people suggests that what had been construed as a racial struggle may in its true construction be more appropriately be described as a class (although the colonial class of employers in the mainstream economy excluded blacks) struggle between the class of people who have been labelled capitalists and the class of people who collectively have been described as workers.

What is important to highlight is that both employers and employees are invariably voluntary contracting parties in any democratic constitutional order.

It is true any holder of shares in a company who elects to work for the same company he holds shares in, is an employee of the enterprise. The only difference perhaps may be that it could be difficult to dismiss an employee who is also a holder of a controlling stake in a company.

During the colonial era, the racialisation of the working place had its own consequences in defining and shaping the nature and context of the struggle for a just and fair labour market.

However, the character of the struggle has remained the same primarily because the binary context in which we generally interpret struggles has not changed.

It is still regrettably a struggle that can be characterised as that of “them” and “us”. Us represents workers with the exclusion of the executive and managerial class who unfortunately have no day dedicated to celebrate their role in creating the means with which working people can derive a livelihood.

To whom should the fruits of enterprise vest? This is an age-old problem. To the working people — the answer is simple and straightforward. They often regard profit as a diversion of what rightly belongs to them.

The irony is that workers and providers of work belong to one family and, in fact, derive a livelihood from the same stream of cash flows.

If the enterprise succeeds, they often behave as if they are strangers and yet their fate is connected and shared.

When one carefully examines the construction of an income statement of either a natural or artificial person, it becomes evident that a worker has a more valid claim to the income generated than a shareholder.

The relationship between a worker and an employer is contractual whereas a shareholder has no entitlement to income, rather he/she only receives what the company does not want for itself after paying taxes.

Some have advocated a point of view that indigenous people must be transformed into employers forgetting that if the universe was comprised of only employers this would not only be absurd but unsustainable.

Shareholders cannot derive a living solely on dividend income which is non-contractual and, therefore, unpredictable.

The majority of black businesspersons are first-generation corporate players, which makes it difficult if not impossible for them to look at dividends as primary source of income.

How then should the struggle of working people be properly constructed and prosecuted? This ought to be the subject of our conversation as we reflect on the meaning of the Workers’ Day.

Some political parties have staked their claim on so-called “pro-poor” strategies forgetting that an environment that celebrates poverty ultimately undermines its future and opportunities that arise from creativeness and innovation of free people.

It is common cause that when one gets a contract of employment, it represents a commitment by the employer to honour his/her obligations at the end of the month without any commensurate guarantees from the beneficiary of the income regarding the earning capacity of the services to be rendered.

Finally, it is important to underscore the point that profit does not represent cash generated and yet many employees look at profit as the measure of cash generation and against which they often construct their injury.

Employees need employers in as much as employers need employees.

In a free and flexible labour market, employees like customers ought to be free to decide where to offer or buy their services and when they feel the contract that gives rise to the relationship with the employer is no longer what they desire, they ought to display their displeasure by electing to find alternative employment or entering the employer market.

There are no easy answers to the challenges of nation building.

It would be futile to embark on strategies that seek to strengthen the workers by weakening the employers as the two classes of people are connected by the same thread.

Mutumwa Mawere is a businessman based in South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity. Contact:mmawere@africaheritage.com