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Labour wary of Mnangagwa's 'Zimbabwe is open for business' mantra

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Labour wary of Mnangagwa's 'Zimbabwe is open for business' mantra

Christopher Mahove

20 Aug 2018

4min min read
  • Employee rights
  • Labour unions
  • Investments, foreign

Zimbabwe’s elections have come and gone with the incumbent, Emmerson Mnangagwa, declared winner of the contested vote. The MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa is, however, contesting the presidential election results and has since filed an application at the Constitutional Court challenging the outcome. Chamisa insists  that he won the poll and that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), which declared Mnangagwa the winner with 50.8% of the vote against Chamisa’s 44.3%, manipulated the figures.

Since his ascendency to the presidency last year after a military-assisted coup which ousted former president Robert Mugabe, Mnangagwa has been running with the mantra that Zimbabwe is “open for business” and calling on western businesses to invest in the country.

Under Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabwe had largely been isolated from the western community and upon seizing power, Mnangagwa immediately declared his desire to re-engage with international business and lure investors after years of economic malaise.

Mnangagwa has been on a whirlwind tour, including high-level meetings such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, to assure the international community that Zimbabwe is now ‘open for business’ and that their investments will be safe

But labour is pessimistic about this message as they fear workers’ rights will be sacrificed to please investors.

“As labour that is currently facing 94 percent informality, this mantra might mean more exploitation as a way of enticing hesitant investors,” said Japhet Moyo, Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).

He said government will likely relax labour laws which will result in serious decent work deficits. Those forced into the informal sector by the high levels of unemployment will be hired as cheap labour as they will not have any choice.

 “We are likely to be used as bait or just be treated as slaves to keep the few businesses that are taking risks to be in the country,” Moyo said. 

Moyo added that President Mnangagwa was misleading investors through his ‘open for business’ rhetoric, saying there has not been any meaningful changes to the country’s economic situation, with the country still grappling with a serious liquidity crisis.

Zimbabwe has been reeling under a serious economic crisis since 2000 when the government embarked on a fast-tracked land reform program which resulted in investors pulling out of the country in droves.

The land reform program, which saw thousands of white commercial farmers’ land re-distributed to landless blacks, invited economic sanctions for the country’s investors and a shunning of the country as it was regarded unsafe.

Moyo said what is more disheartening is that President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been meeting with almost all other stakeholders – including business, the church, women and the youth – but has never made similar effort to meet with labour.

“This is a clear sign that we are not part of the plans of his administration and do not matter much to him,” he said.

Workers gains will be 'eroded'

Labour expert Thomas Masvingwe believes the mantra is a big threat to the rights of workers with most gains – such as the right to strike – being eroded.

“It is clear that the president and his Zanu-PF party are activating a principal and agent relationship between the government and business, with business being the principal,” he said.

“Government will be furthering the interests of business alone and this will have ramifications for labour as there will be no security of tenure for workers.  The type of employment contracts that will arise from that policy will embrace a labour market flexibility model in which an employer can hire and fire as they please.”

Collective bargaining agreements, Masvingwe reckons, will be made redundant, with employers likely to choose short-term contracts that do not come with any benefits such as pensions and maternity leave, among others.

The adoption of short term contracts by employers will make it particularly difficult for female employees who become pregnant as they will not be allowed to go on maternity leave and will be replaced. This will contribute to very few numbers of employed women.

“There will be massive outsourcing of jobs in parastatals from companies that are not bound by collective bargaining agreement and most provisions of the Labour Act will not apply,” he said. 

Masvingwe said the establishment of special economic zones, in which some sections of the country’s Labour Act Chapter – which stipulates working hours and working conditions –  will not apply, is one way in which government is incentivising investors at the expense of workers.

Several areas such as Bulawayo, Sunway City in Harare, Victoria Falls and Tokwe Mukorsi have been declared special economic zones, with more being planned as the government seeks to attract foreign direct investment.

Labour and Economic Research Institute of Zimbabwe economist, Nyasha Muchichwa, added that he also believed that the ‘open for business’ mantra” would be a disaster for labour as he predicts similar workers’ rights violations.

“There will be no joy for workers as investments will likely be capital intensive,” he said. 

Election results not a good sign

Moyo, whose ZCTU is the biggest labour umbrella body in the country, said the elections results have not helped matters.

“The election results just finished off the remaining hope citizens had to break from the past,” he said. “The majority of the Cabinet that has been there since independence, headed by the same people, is not expected to change our fortunes as a country.“

Moyo added that ““stealing the elections”, as he claimed ZANU-PF has done in these polls, shows that nothing has changed.

But Masvingwe believes both the ruling Zanu-PF and the MDC Alliance, a grouping of seven political parties which came together to try to wrestle power from the former, have no pro-worker policies.

“Labour must stand up and say no to policies that affect them and conscietise workers and others” he said, adding that there is need for labour to unite and counter anti-labour policies through lobbying and various other means.

Prospects for recovery for Zimbabwe, however, were dealt a further blow after elections when United States President Donald Trump signed into law the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Amendment Act which sets tough conditions for Zimbabwe to re-engage with the United States and extends economic sanctions on Zimbabwe by the USA.

There are fears that other western countries might also take a cue from the USA and impose sanctions on the Southern African country.

Also, many western diplomats recently boycotted Zimbabwe’s Heroes’ Day commemorations; a sign that re-engagement will be harder than the mantra that Mnangagwa has been has been attempting to normalise.

(Main image: A peanut vendor sells her products while listening to speeches held during a worker's day rally hosted by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) at Dzivarasekwa Stadium in Harare on 1 May 2018. –Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.