17 Oct 2002

Rising dissent – but clamp down on unions

Rising discontent over soaring inflation and a rapidly shrinking economy could lead to serious confrontation between the government and disgruntled Zimbabwean workers, analysts warned. In response to declining living standards, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) has called for widespread tax cuts, saying the deepening economic crisis had eroded the purchasing power of workers. Zimbabwe is in the midst of its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1980, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warning that the inflation rate will rise to 155 percent by the end of the year - twice the government's estimate of 70 percent.

Lovemore Matombo, the president of the ZCTU, said the umbrella labour movement had appealed to the government to exempt all workers earning below Zim $23,000 (US $418 at the official rate) from paying tax. "The level of poverty has dramatically increased. Workers are no longer paid for overtime work, the cost of living is very high. It has become near impossible for families to afford basic food items as well as access to social services," Matombo told IRIN. The federation also wanted the government to scrap tax on retrenchment payouts for workers who were laid off by liquidated companies. "The government would do well to heed the frustrations of the workers. Whether or not they concede to our request, it is important that the people are aware of the labour movement's position on spiralling inflation," Matombo added.

This week, the government demonstrated how it could deal with recalcitrant workers by firing 627 striking members of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe ahead of crucial end of year exams. As the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) reported the teachers had been on strike since last week, asking for a long-awaited wage increase that would compensate their loss of purchasing power following the inflation and devaluation of the Zimbabwean currency, the Zimbabwean dollar (Z$).

It is also reported that Raymond Majongwe, the Secretary General of the Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) was arrested for his picket action, allegedly for threatening teachers who were not involved in the strike. According to the information received, Mr. Majongwe was injured during his 48-hours in police custody, and appeared before the court with a torn shirt and injuries to one eye and an arm. It is reported that two other leaders of the PTUZ, Innocent Moyo and Enock Paradzayi, were also arrested on October 15 on public order charges.

Analysts told IRIN that the recent flurry of strikes was a sign that Zimbabwe's labour force was becoming restless over the government's failure to address spiralling inflation. John Makumbe, a political analyst at the University of Zimbabwe said: "Already there is talk that the hospital technicians may go on strike. It is also likely that the electricity workers may join them. There is mounting resistance to how the government is running the country." Whether or not workers would take to the streets in protest, resulting in an inevitable confrontation with the security forces, depended on the government's response to their frustrations, Makumbe said. "Workers are acutely aware of the government's capacity to use its instruments of repression. Nobody really wants to lose their lives in the process. The firing of so many teachers has elicited a lot of anger among parents. It is this anger that may filter onto the streets of Harare," Makumbe added.

But, he said, the anti-trade unionism laws and extra-legal constraints would make it difficult for the ZCTU to mobilise support on the same level as it did 1998. "The government is unlikely to heed ZCTU's demands for tax cuts. In fact, ZANU-PF has become a lot more strident in recent months. A confrontation between the government and workers could lead to a bloodbath and everyone concerned is very aware of this. [But] we are likely to see further stayaways and sit-ins," Richard Cornwell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa said. However, Makumbe did not rule out the possibility of mass action, as a "simple incident could transform an ostensibly calm situation into an all-out confrontation between the police and workers".

Meanwhile, since the MDC's defeat in local council elections last month - marred by intimidation and the inability of the MDC to contest in half of the wards - the party had "lost direction", one analyst said. Tsvangirai was reluctant to call for mass action fearing the government may use the opportunity to violently clamp down on opposition supporters, said the analyst who asked not to be named. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's currency this week sank to its lowest level in the country's history. At the present parallel rate of exchange, it now costs nearly 1,000 Zimbabwe dollars for one US dollar. Economists say the latest plunge was sparked by the cost of imported fuel. Three weeks of fuel shortages ended on Monday after the government reportedly used all its available foreign currency to pay Libya for fuel. The fuel was stored in tanks controlled by the Libyans on the outskirts of Harare, and they only released it after receiving payment in foreign currency.

Meanwhile, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) suspended food aid distribution in Insiza district in Zimbabwe's Matabeleland South province "until further notice", following the seizure of food by ruling ZANU-PF activists and its partisan redistribution. The food agency said that ZANU-PF activists in Senale centre in Insiza district on Thursday "intimidated" staff of the local implementing NGO, Organisation of Rural Associations for Progress (ORAP), and seized 3 mt of food which they "distributed in an unauthorised manner". The ZANU-PF supporters were campaigning ahead of a by-election due in the area next month. (IRIN, ICFTU)

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