Court rulings wake up call to labour

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July 2015 is turning out to be a dark month for labour relations in the history of Zimbabwe. The month witnessed an unprecedented assault on workers’ rights after the Supreme Court on July 17 ruled that employers had the right to terminate workers’ contracts after giving them three months’ notice.

Employers were inadvertently given the green light to sidestep the costly retrenchment route.

What followed the landmark ruling has been described as a “bloodbath” in labour circles as companies rushed to fire hundreds of workers at short notice.

Some companies have fired between 200 and 400 employees at one go after the ruling.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) estimates that 6 000 workers have lost their jobs in less than a fortnight and a lot more would be left jobless by the time the government rectifies the situation.

The aftermath of the ruling sent the government and workers’ unions into panic, but before the dust settled, the Supreme Court brewed another shocker this week.

The court ruled that employers had the right to withdraw employees’ allowances on the basis that they were not a right or entitlement.

The ruling was made in a case involving the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) and unions who were demanding payment of housing and education allowances.

NRZ, the court ruled, had no obligation to pay the allowances since they were based on collective bargaining agreements.

The unions in 2007 took NRZ to court over its refusal to pay employees housing and education allowances.

An arbitrator had ruled in the workers’ favour and the ruling was confirmed by the Labour Court.

NRZ appealed at the Supreme Court and the judge, Justice Vernanda Ziyambi, ruled in the struggling parastatal’s favour.

As was the case with the July 17 judgment, there are likely to be some employers who would seize on Justice Ziyambi’s ruling to embark on cost-cutting measures in response to the faltering company.

A number of employees could lose their allowances and this could cut into their salary packages.

The two judgments leave employees exposed to unscrupulous employers.

Both judgments have been criticised by unions and labour experts, but it would be critical to underscore the fact that judges only interpret the law.

In actual fact, the judgments expose both government and the unions for sleeping on the wheel.

Serious unions, preoccupied with their members’ welfare, should have seen this catastrophe long before it happened and lobbied for the reform of the now battered labour laws.

The government should also have been proactive to close the loopholes in the laws rather than wait to react to such disasters.

Lack of commitment to workers’ struggles by both government and labour unions is demonstrated through the stop- start Tripartite Negotiating Forum activities.

The unions have also been too politicised such that they expend most of their energies in fighting battles that do not belong to them.

ZCTU has become weaker because of internal battles that mirror the disintegration of the opposition in Zimbabwe, while the ruling Zanu PF party has been setting up its proxy unions to destabilise labour.

The rulings should be a wake-up call to organised labour to start paying attention to issues that matter to workers.

A robust response is needed to mitigate the effects of the rulings and this can only happen if the unions stick to their core business, which is to fight for the rights of workers.