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Labour stayaways counterproductive
Eric Bloch
April 13, 2007

AS with most of the previous attempts of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) to stage a nationwide work-stoppage and stayaway from places of employment, that scheduled for two days last week proved to be a non-event.

Save for a few factories which, with unbridled over-reaction and near-panic, resolved not to operate on those days - but instead either required their workforces to take vacation leave, or to work on future weekends in lieu of the two days of factory closure - almost all factories were operational.

Most of them had near total numbers reporting for work, albeit that some did so unavoidably late, due to inadequate availability of public transport. Similarly, virtually all shops, offices, restaurants, hotels and other enterprises were open for trade and were able to conduct their operations in an almost "as normal" manner.

The only clear-cut evidence of the "stay-away" was that there was a tremendous lack of commuter omnibus services for, based upon previous experiences, their operators were fearful that they could be the victims of intimidatory stoning of their vehicles.

From interactions with numerous workers, there is little doubt that very great numbers were desirous of voicing their pronounced dissatisfaction at government's gross mismanagement of the economy and at the consequential very intensive hardships constantly confronting them and their families. However, they had no will to express that dissatisfaction by absenting themselves from their places of employment.

In most instances, the deterrent from so-doing was that they simply could not afford to lose two days' wages. As it is, those wages are, for almost all, highly inadequate to fund even the essential, basic needs of the workers and their families, for the state's incompetent and destructive economic policies, and other economically-negative actions, have fuelled hyperinflation to such extent that it is the rare exception within Zimbabwe's working class if anyone can "make ends meet".

Others were understandably fearful that if they failed to report for work, they would be discharged, for the stayaway was not a lawful strike-action in terms of Zimbabwe's labour legislation.

They were fully aware that the appalling economic conditions prevailing in Zimbabwe were such that a very large number of enterprises were pursuing any opportunities to "down-size" their operations, but were constrained from terminating employment of workers because of unaffordability of retrenchment packages.

Thus they would undoubtedly, and unhesitatingly, avail themselves of any lawful opportunities of dismissal of workers and, therefore, the workers could not take a chance by supporting the stay-away, no matter how greatly sympathetic they were to the calls for the stay-away.

That the ZCTU was anxious to have a mass, nationwide protest at the endlessly ongoing suffering and hardships of its members is unreservedly understandable and, in principle, deserving of unmitigated support.

As evidenced in the 1980s, and again between 1994 and 1997, the Zimbabwean economy has gargantuan potential and, properly managed and developed, the economy could readily support, in reasonable comfort and well-being, the majority of the population. But it is not only not properly managed - it is assiduously mismanaged, year after year, by a government only concerned with its own wellbeing and continuance in power.

Almost without exception, Zimbabwe's economic ills are attributable to the policies, actions, and inactions, of government, notwithstanding that government would have all believe that the economic distress has been deliberately fomented by Britain, the USA, the European Union and others that it perceives as its enemies.

The fact that there is irrefutable evidence that that is not the case, and there is equally irrefutable evidence that government has caused the near-demise of the economy, and has failed to take the constructive measures available that could reverse that demise, is blandly and contemptuously disregarded by government. As a result, the emaciated economy continues to worsen continuously, ever intensifying the hardships and misery afflicting workers, their families and their other dependents.

As the foremost representative body of the Zimbabwean workforce, the ZCTU very rightly wishes to motivate change. It wishes to provoke government into constructively addressing the economic ills with positive actions instead of meaningless and destructive rhetoric which only causes further economic deterioration.

Regrettably, however, the methodology of trying to motivate the desired change is ill-conceived, ineffectual, and potentially disastrous. In the first instance, work stoppages have very little significant impact upon government.

In fact, they benefit government by providing it with another alleged explanation for the adverse economic conditions, thereby diverting attention from the real catalyst of those conditions, being government itself. Therefore, the intended objectives of the stayaway cannot be attained or, even if widely supported, the stayaway would not motivate government to modify its stance in economic matters.

Moreover, while not achieving the declared objectives of the stayaway, in the event that it had had the wide-ranging support that the ZCTU had appealed for and anticipated, the only consequence would have been yet further weakening of the economy.

The loss of production would have been a severe blow to many industries whose ongoing operation and survival was already extremely frail, and could well have been "the final straw that breaks the camel's back". Thereby, the already horrendous levels of unemployment would have become even greater, with yet more extensive suffering for the ZCTU's members and their families.

Therefore, the ZCTU call for a mass protest action of staying away from work was tantamount to the calls by middle-eastern religious fanatics for their followers to be suicide bombers. Those fanatics do not suffer by their adherents taking their own lives, and yet as long proven over more than 40 years, their doing so has not gained any of the objectives that the fanatics sought. So, too, voicing protest by work-stoppage cannot and will not provoke government to abandon its destructive polices, and to pursue constructive ones.

This should have been blatantly clear by the total ineffectiveness of all previous work stayaways, but it appears that the ZCTU cannot learn from experience, or is totally devoid of ideas of other ways of motivating much needed change.

The ZCTU also needs to recognise that its repeated calls for stayaways, such as its declared present intent to motivate a stayaway at least once per month, only degrades itself, for it is achieving naught but successive failures.

More and more the ZCTU is being seen as an ineffectual body rich in talk, but devoid of ability to act effectively. This is tragic, for workers need the protection that well-managed trade unions can accord them. Instead, the ZCTU's failure to achieve a significant, affirmative response to its protest measures plays fairly and squarely into government's hands.

The political hierarchy that constitutes the incompetent, authoritarian, non-democratic, uncaring Zimbabwean government increasingly believes in its omnipotence because of the repeated failures of any protests by the populace to have widespread support. As a result, government sees itself as invincible, and that it can ride roughshod over any and all opposition, and against any and all protests.

The ZCTU needs to abandon its policy of stay-aways, which policy has repeatedly proven itself to be ineffectual and contrary to national interest, and totally counterproductive, and instead must seek other, lawful, forms of protest. The labour body must not cease to voice protest, when protest is necessary, but it must do so constructively.

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