Workers have nothing to celebrate on May Day


By Cuthbert Mavheko
On May 1, Zimbabwe joins the rest of the world to celebrate Workers’ Day. This international holiday, also known as International Workers’ Day or May Day, was first celebrated on May 1 1890, and is observed annually on May 1. The day is marked with a public holiday in more than 80 countries.

Local Workers’ Day celebrations are to be held under the theme: Restoring workers’ dignity. The celebrations come at a time the living standards of the overwhelming majority of workers in the country have plummeted to very low levels, owing to the slave wages that workers are earning.

“While May 1 was set aside to celebrate the achievements of workers and the labour movement, in Zimbabwe there is really nothing to celebrate. The majority of workers in the country, in both public and private sectors, are paid salaries that are far below the poverty datum line of US$600 a month.

“This injustice is not only morally and economically indefensible, but is a glaring violation of Section 65 (1) of our Constitution, which states that every person has the right to be paid a fair and reasonable wage,” an official from the National Employment Council of the Textile Industry has observed.

He further says: “It is a depressing state of affairs to note that while workers in industry are the pillars of the economy, the majority of them are so impoverished that even a decent plate of isitshwala/sadza and beef is no longer guaranteed to them as the prices of mealie-meal and beef have spiked. In view of this, workers should attend the May Day commemorations dressed in black attire to mourn the demise of their livelihoods.”

It is this scribe’s considered view that the precipitous decline in the living standards of workers in the private sector, especially those in industry, was precipitated by the previous government’s decision to give employers and workers’ unions the responsibility to negotiate salary increments for workers in the private sector.

Workers’ unions hailed the decision as a progressive one which, they said, would help usher in a rich socio-economic harvest for workers in industry, who were struggling to make ends meet due to the harsh economic climate in the country. However, this turned out to be mere wishful thinking.

Due to massive economic exploitation, the majority of workers in industry today find themselves in a catch-22 situation, amid reports that over 80% of them are languishing at the poverty extreme end of the pendulum.

In his novel Matigari author Ngugi Wa Thiong wrote: “There’s not a long night that does not end with dawn.” However, for legions of workers in industry, the long night of their economic enslavement appears to have no end.

Since employers and labour unions assumed the responsibility of negotiating salary increments for workers in the private sector, workers in industry have endured a plethora of economic hardships, but have soldiered on patiently hoping labour unions would one day honour their pledge to transform the workplace in industry into the proverbial Garden of Eden with decent salaries for all workers. But this has remained just a pie in the sky.

One disturbing observation that I made during my decade-long stint as a workers’ representative in industry is that leaders of some labour unions in industry have abdicated their role of serving the interests of workers and, for the proverbial 30 pieces of silver, are now working hand in glove with employers in perpetuating the economic subjugation of the very workers, whose interests they are supposed to serve. This is nothing short of shameful and disgraceful.

Indeed, it is a tragic development in the history of trade unionism in Zimbabwe that some leaders of labour unions are necodimously sleeping in the same bed with employers, who are exploiting their members (workers).

It has become disturbingly common for employers in industry to contend that they cannot hike the salaries of their workers to levels that are commensurate with the cost of living  because their enterprises are in the doldrums, owing to the slump in the economy. The tragic irony, however, is that the same employers pay company executives  massive salaries and also shower them with a litany of lucrative feather-beddings.

It is no hidden secret that some company executives in industry are drowning in riches. They cavort about the countryside in ostentatious German made car models and own grandiose palatial mansions in exclusive suburbs. The heartbreaking reality is that their opulent lifestyles are watered by the sweat of ordinary shopfloor workers, who are being exposed to a life of poverty and servitude that one scribe aptly described as modern-day slavery.

What offends my own moral sensibilities is that while Zimbabwe discarded the mantle of colonial rule in 1980, we still have among us some employers who view ordinary workers as providers of cheap labour.

These employers cling, with the tenacity of savanna ticks, to the convoluted colonial mentality that propagated the fable that the average worker in industry is daft, illiterate and quite happy and contented when he/she is eating isitshwala/sadza and amacimbi/madora (mopani worms) and living in a single room with his/her huge extended family.

As far as some employers in industry are concerned, workers should be perennially grateful to them for the mere act of providing them with jobs and should be content with whatever they receive in the way of remuneration. This reasoning is harebrained, neurotic and highly-deranged as it reduces employment to a mere privilege or an act of charity. These employers seem to be oblivious of the fact that the provision of jobs is a basic human right that is enshrined in our own Constitution and should never be equated with a privilege or a mere act of charity.

Parting point: My humble submission is that for government to end the economic exploitation of workers in industry, it should operationalise the Tripartite Negotiating Forum. Just maybe the workers’ plight may be heard and addressed.

Employers in industry are generally self-centred and profit-driven and to expect them to pay their workers a living wage without being compelled to do so by some form of legislation is a naive expectation that can only be found in a utopian world, which does not exist.

  • Cuthbert Mavheko is a freelance journalist based in Bulawayo. He writes here in his personal capacity.