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Legal Monitor - Issue 190
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR)
April 29
, 2013

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Workers Day’s Death

Up to about two decades ago, Workers’ Day, also known as May Day was like a second Christmas for many Zimbabweans. That is all history.

In different parts of the country, vans showcasing products of various companies would create a spectacle as they made their way to local stadia, dishing out products to people lining along the roads. After Christmas Day, The Workers’ Day was the next big deal on the calendar.

And, of course, during those days President Robert Mugabe would sit and deliver speeches side by side with men like Morgan Tsvangirai and the late Gibson Sibanda, then powerful trade union leaders with a leaning towards the then ruling ZANU PF party. As Zimbabwe joins the world in commemorating Workers Day on Wednesday, all this seems a distant, fading memory – with a huge part of the population under 20 years only getting to know such a Zimbabwe once existed through tales.

How things change.

Now a Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai left trade unionism for opposition politics in 1999 and turned into a fierce critic of President Mugabe. In 2009 he joined President Mugabe in government as a reluctant coalition partner.

Fireworks are expected when the two men cross swords again in presidential elections scheduled for later this year. The two are yet to agree on a date, making the exact timing of the watershed poll uncertain.

But on May 1, one thing is certain. No fireworks will go off. There will be no cheer.

With 70 percent of people estimated to be formally unemployed, very few Zimbabweans still identify with a day which used to be marked with pomp and fanfare.

According to labour unions, the few workers toiling in industry and government service for low pay are regularly suffering abuse of their rights.

But the majority of Zimbabweans remotely connect to such talk. Many say they will not even “take advantage” of the public holiday. “I have to do this everyday otherwise my family will starve. There are no jobs out there so we have to work ourselves,” says an air time vendor who chose to be identified only as “Nhekairo.”

With the spectacular collapse of the economy largely credited to haphazard government policies, Zimbabwe has turned into one huge informal economy.

Citizens out of jobs have to hustle on the streets selling anything from airtime and sweets to skin lightening creams and medicines. In the rural and farming communities, many have resorted to risky “professions” like gold panning, poaching and commercial sex work as poverty bites 33 years after independence from Britain. While government officials gloat about the success of the often violent land reform programme, figures recently released by government agency, the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat) paint a grim picture.

The report notes that poverty is far worse in rural areas, where the majority of Zimbabweans live, than in urban areas.

“It is observed that 62,6 percent of Zimbabwean households are deemed poor while 16, 2 percent of the households are in extreme poverty,” states the ZimStat report. “The key finding is that poverty is more widespread and prevalent in Zimbabwe’s rural areas than urban areas. About 76 percent of rural households are poor compared to 38, 2 percent in urban areas.”

The elderly, who in normal circumstances should be enjoying their sunset years after building a comfortable pension, are hardest hit, according to the report.

“Poor households in Zimbabwe are characterised by high dependency ratios, and, on average, older heads of households are associated with higher prevalence of poverty than younger heads of household,” states the report, which notes that access to employment for the household head is closely associated with household poverty status.

“In the rural and urban areas, households headed by an own account worker are more likely to be affected by a high poverty incidence. Casual or temporary workers, similarly, suffer from high rates of poverty,” reads the report, noting that households headed by a permanently paid employee or employer have the lowest likelihood to be poor.

Still, that is not stopping labour federations from organising what are likely to be low key events to mark the day.

As part of preparations, labour union leaders will probably have an army of lawyers on standby as it has become routine for police to pounce on events to mark the day.

Such is the fate of the Zimbabwean worker, as highlighted by an International Labour Organisation report, which stated that there was “a clear pattern of arrests, detentions, violence and torture by the security forces against trade unionists that coincide with Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions nationwide events, indicating that there has been some centralised direction to the security forces to take such action.”

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