HomeOpinion & AnalysisZero hour contracts: Workers must be wary

Zero hour contracts: Workers must be wary

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Paidamoyo Muzulu
THE meaning of the term “ease of doing business” became a bit clearer to many workers this week. It became very obvious that the so-called Second Republic is determined not to have workers disrupt capital and can be easily chucked out of employment in the proposed Labour Amendment Bill.

There are so many things that have happened in the labour market since the turn of the century. Workers have gradually seen their power, a power to unionise, eroded through legislation or emergence of new technology such as artificial intelligence.

Zimbabwean workers have been at the mercy of capital since the 1990 experiment with the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) structural adjustment programme (SAP). The programme was aimed at cutting back government expenditure, the headcount at companies as the fad “lean is better and efficient” was touted.

Many civil servants lost their jobs as government belt-tightened. It did not end there as government started cutting expenditure on education and health funding. The era of privatising education and health had begun.

SAPs further sought the deregulation of forex controls and removal of import restrictions. Zimbabwean companies that had hitherto enjoyed protectionist policies were overwhelmed by competition from mainly South Africa, marking the beginning of the end of the many manufacturing companies in the country.

Thousands of workers were laid off and very little new jobs were created. Unions were on the wane. They tried to fight back between 1995 and 1998, it was a battle of punching way above the union’s weight. By 1999, the unions were convinced that they had to have a party that would represent their interests.

But capital has been relentless in its fight for neoliberalism. Within two decades, the political landscape has no bona fide labour party and there was no outrage when the President Emmerson Mnangagwa administration did a coup de grace on labour this week.

Mnangagwa and his government are tired of trying to be in the middle ground on matters pitting labour against capital. They have nailed their colours to the mast that they stand with capital.

On Tuesday, in a Cabinet communiqué, government said: “The amendments also make provision for the promotion of the ease of doing business in the labour market through the streamlining of the labour dispute settlement and retrenchment processes.”

It continued: “The Bill also takes care of emerging issues in the world of work such as labour broking, violence and harassment at the workplace and emerging forms of employment relationships with a view to closing the lacuna in the existing legislation thus entrenching fair labour standards contemplated in section 65 of the Constitution.”

It is important that we put some of the euphemisms used in writing the communiqué to test. For that demonstration, I will analyse the terms: promotion of the ease of doing business; streamlining of labour dispute settlement and retrenchment process; and labour broking.

Promotion of the ease of doing business is a term that is used by neoliberals referring to the fact that there should be minimal hassles to investment by capital.

It is the same phrase that is used to give multinationals and other companies tax exemptions for specified periods all in the name of trying to look like the best destination for investment.

Streamlining of labour dispute settlement and retrenchment processes means that these processes should be done as smoothly and fast as possible so that business does not keep worrying about pending legal disputes. In other words, it is going to be easier to fire or retrench workers for the sake of keeping capital happy.

And finally but not least, labour broking — this is a concept that removes the employee from direct contact with the employer. The employee becomes a third party to a contract between the company and the labour broker.

It is labour broking that reduces workers to zero-hour contracts. A worker can be fired easily. An employee is hired to do a specific duty for a specific period and receive a prior agreed fee. There is no pension or medical insurance to the employee. In other words, a company can operate with bare minimum employees, but the majority of shop floor workers are hired through labour brokers and the company has no obligation for insurance, pension, off days or annual leave days. An employee earns as  he works.

Labour broking is a classic panacea to business to keep costs low and increase its profits. However, this works better in a country with well-established social safety nets. I wonder where workers will get medical insurance or pensions. The number of urban indigents is set to increase and the development partners or donor agencies should be on the lookout to assist the urban poor.

An example of labour broking in South Africa can demonstrate what a monster this proposed money saving venture is for workers. Many commercial farms have no permanent workers or compounds. If there is work to be done, the farmer contacts a labour broker who hires workers and takes them to the farm to work for the day and takes them back to their homes at the end of the day.

The workers have no housing allowance, no educational facilities for their children, no pension and no medical aid. They are simply a tool that can be hired and discarded at the drop of a hat.

This is the future that Mnangagwa and his government envision for Zimbabweans. A future for business to flourish without any regard to the needs of labour. All those who claim to be politically aligned to the left or care about labour should stand up now or raise their voices.

The poor and working class are now on their own, probably it’s time they fight back starting with stopping these zero-hour contracts and bringing back dignity to working.

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