Sneaking in minimum wage is scandalous


HE routinely leaves home daily before day break. His aim is to catch the cheap government-owned Zupco bus at 5:30am so that he gets at his workstation at 7.

In his small worn-out satchel is a plastic lunchbox containing cornmeal and beef stew for lunch and a 500ml container with diluted orange syrup.

His workstation is the packing/dispatch section of the old factory warehouse.

He trudges the floor in the dimly lit warehouse pulling large boxes of manufactured goods.

By 10am, he takes a break — 30 minutes of quickly munching his two slices of bread with a cup of hot tea — stretching his limps and probably lighting a cigarette.

The alarm shrieks calling everyone back to their workstations and the routine repeats itself until the lunch break at 1pm.

He moves to the company canteen and sits to eat his cold sadza and beef stew.

The factory hands crack a few jokes and discuss about soccer betting — a new fad that has taken Zimbabwe by storm, which many low-income workers use to supplement their income.

Liverpool is a sure bet, it has delivered time and again in this English Premier League season.

At 2pm, he hauls himself back to the same routine, back-bending labour — working with his eye on the clock as his mind is thinking about catching the Zupco bus back home.

Missing it means having to fork out more to travel on the kombi and eating into the food budget.

This man has been receiving a market-related wage, a wage that is determined by the employer who has more power at the wage bargaining table.

He has been receiving $1 500 a month, barely meeting a third of his monthly requirements estimated at $5 000 — the poverty datum line for a family of five according to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency.

In a surprise move last week, Labour and Social Welfare minister Paul Mavima dusted the long forgotten minimum wage regulations through Statutory Instrument 81 of 2020.

Zimbabwe last gazetted minimum wage for the private sector in 1996, a year after abandoning the International Monetary Fund-sponsored Economic Structural Adjustment Programme — a neoliberal economic policy that worships capital.

“The schedule to the Labour Relations (Specification of Minimum Wages) notice, 1996, published in Statutory Instrument 70 of 1996, is repealed and the following substituted — for all employees (other than domestic and agricultural employees, for which alternative provision will be made) is $2 549,74,” the SI reads.

The decision is a welcome policy measure from the regime — a tacit admission that unregulated capital never pays a living wage to the working class.

Capital is simply after profits and the welfare of citizens is the burden of the State.

It is interesting that the regime seeks to directly intervene, but its intervention is woefully short as shall be demonstrated in this article.

Any minimum wage below the poverty datum line is a legalised slave wage.

That the regime has announced a minimum wage half the poverty datum line shows its lack of respect for labour — it is only a tool that is dispensable and should only be paid enough to be able to attend work.

Interestingly, the notice was gazetted after Parliament went into indefinite recess and in the middle of a state of emergency as the government is battling the ravaging coronavirus pandemic and had promulgated a national lockdown for three weeks.

This is classic neoliberal Chicago School of Economics policy — the shock doctrine — make changes while the country is facing a disaster so that there is no resistance.

Characteristically, the decision is in line with Finance minister Mthuli Ncube’s public assertion in his 2019 budget statement that the government shall follow the market.

The minimum wage is within the range capital is comfortable with, hence there was no outcry from business unions and associations.
Capital will not pay more, arguing they are simply paying what the law says.

However, it is instructive to relook the genesis of minimum wage in capitalist economies.

Minimum wage and 40 hours working week was a result of labour unions’ intensive struggles against capital.

Workers demanded a wage that met or was above the poverty datum line — a living wage.

In other words, a minimum wage is linked to the cost of basic expenses workers have to meet each month.

It means the figure is a consensus amount agreed among labour, employers (capital) and the government.

There is a tacit agreement that manufacturing costs, pricing costs and wages are always kept in tandem and any variation in any of the three parts leads to the re-evaluation of the other two.

Unfortunately, Zimbabwe is not like that — it controls wages and remains silent on the other two parts of the triad.

Labour has been locked in a corner as the regime and capital go to bed in the over-emphasised slogan of “Zimbabwe is open for business” and the ease of doing business mantras.

Can labour fight back?

It is a pretty daunting, but not insurmountable task as capital has a fallback position to whip labour into line — the 2015 Supreme Court Zuva judgment.

Zimbabwe has joined China in having legislated sweatshops, creating a playground for rapacious capital.

And worse still, the Chicago Boys have done it the classic style — use a disaster (shock doctrine) to hang labour dry.

This is scandalous in a poor country where the majority swim in poverty.

Paidamoyo Muzulu is a journalist and writes here in his personal capacity.