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Mixed response to work stayaway, army on the streets
April 03, 2007

HARARE - Zimbabwean authorities have warned the leadership of the labour movement that they will deal ruthlessly with anyone preventing people from going to work on the eve of a two-day stayaway called to protest the country's economic collapse.

The action, called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) for Tuesday and Wednesday, aims not to confront the police on the streets, but to register anger over the record rate of inflation, unemployment that affects eight out of 10 people, and the collapse of social services.

"We have emphasised that this will be a peaceful protest with no street marches; people are just urged not to go to work," said ZCTU secretary-general Wellington Chibebe.

However, on Sunday ZCTU militants were reportedly warning public transporters that their vehicles would be torched if they were seen ferrying passengers to work on Monday.

Assistant commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena, the national police spokesman, told IRIN the police would not tolerate any public disorder. "Police have already been deployed in all major cities across the country to ensure that peace prevails. Police would like to warn those who want to coerce others not to report for work that it is an illegal act and will be dealt with ruthlessly by the police."

Zimbabwe has been simmering since February, after riot police and soldiers dispersed thousands of opposition supporters in the volatile Highfields suburb of the capital, Harare, when they turned up for a protest prayer rally. The meeting had been banned by the police, and one opposition member was shot dead in running street battles fought with the security forces.

The prayer rally was to have been addressed by the leaders of the two opposition Movement for Democratic Change factions, Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara.

The images of Tsvangirai and other pro-democracy activists who were assaulted while in police custody made headlines across the world.

In September 2006, the entire ZCTU leadership was beaten up in police cells after holding a peaceful demonstration to demand better wages.

Labour minister Nicholas Goche told IRIN the current boycott call was being used as a political weapon. "Workers must ignore the call to stay away because it is politically motivated. I am aware that some individuals in the ZCTU, who are aligned to the opposition MDC, want to drag workers into the Western-backed violence against Zimbabwe to effect regime change."

Chibebe stressed that the ZCTU's goal was to highlight the plight of workers. "We are demanding salaries to be pegged against the Poverty Datum Line, which is Zim$1 million [US$40 at the parallel market rate, US$4,000 at the official]. Transport costs alone, on average, are about Zim$440,000 a month [US$18 at the unofficial rate]."

An average wage is about Zim$250,000 (US$10), and with inflation touching 1,700 percent the struggle to make ends meet is almost universal in Zimbabwe.

The job stayaway has received the backing of labour movements in several African and European countries, but with a track record of tepid responses by workers to strike calls in recent years, there is some doubt of its success.

"What we are likely to see is the police going into houses and forcing people to go to work; government buses will suddenly appear and provide transport," said human rights activist Pedzisai Ruhanya.

"But if the ZCTU did enough mobilisation, and also engaged some employers, then this time it might be successful. The problem is likely to be in the civil service, the majority employer, where workers will have no option but to report for work for fear of dismissal."

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