THE BANNING of protests, abductions and torture of activists and students, arrests of journalists and the intimidation of trade unions are not issues that we will be silent about, says the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).
NUMSA, which is affiliated to IndustriALL Global Union, organised a picket of the Zimbabwean Embassy in Pretoria, on 23 September, to protest against abuses of workers and human rights in the country.
The picket was in response to the International Day of Action called by ITUC-Africa to protest against labour and human rights violations in Zimbabwe.
The union was joined at the picket by civil society organisations that are also protesting against the violations using the online campaign #ZimbabweanLivesMatter highlighting the abuses and which has received global support.
The online campaign emerged after social media became one of the few ways to protest after the government of Zimbabwe banned demonstrations against Covid-19 procurement, corruption, and the deteriorating social and economic crisis in the country which were planned for 31 July.
Unemployment is high and wages for most workers are only US$30 per month, meaning that workers are living in poverty.
When Zimbabwean unions campaigned for a living wage to protect workers against low pay and hyperinflation – which is over 800 per cent – they were labelled ‘terrorist organisations’.
According to the UN World Food Programme, over eight million people in Zimbabwe now need emergency relief support to avoid starvation.
Activists, students, journalists, and the organisers of the 31 July demonstration were arrested, abducted and tortured, charged in the courts with trying to overthrow the government and accused of ‘inciting violence’ or disregarding Covid-19 regulations. The demonstrations were stifled by a heavy police and army presence and the few who took placards out onto the streets were arrested.
Booker prize nominee for 2020 Tsitsi Dangarembga, whose novel This Mournable Body has been shortlisted, was also arrested for ‘inciting violence’ and ‘bigotry’.
NUMSA’s demands include that the African Union must investigate the human rights violations and hold the government to account. Further, the judiciary must be independent; and freedom of association respected. Media freedoms should also be respected and charges against journalists and other political prisoners withdrawn.
Andrew Chirwa, NUMSA president, said: ‘Instead of addressing the crisis, the Zimbabwean government has responded with brutality and repression.
‘The country is in the grip of state-sponsored violence against its people. We demand workers’ freedom to participate in activities of any trade unions of their choice and that their right to strike be protected.’
Paule France Ndessomin, IndustriALL regional secretary for Sub Saharan Africa, said: ‘We call upon the government of Zimbabwe to respect international labour standards. Trade unions play an important role in improving the welfare of workers and working class communities, but they can only do so when their freedoms and rights are respected.’
IndustriALL’s 10 affiliates in Zimbabwe, which organise in the chemical and plastics, energy, engineering, metal, mining, manufacturing, and textile, garment, shoe and leather sectors, welcomed NUMSA’s support which they said strengthened not only international solidarity, but their resolve to continue fighting for workers’ and human rights.
- The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) says it will begin mobilising for major strike action in the first week of October.
COSATU is the largest union federation in the country with an estimated membership of 1.8 million workers.
In a statement, the federation’s Gauteng division called on all workers to participate in the action in response to a breakdown in government worker wage negotiations.
‘The refusal to honour the PSCBC (Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council) Resolution 1 of 2018 is a direct attack on workers. What is unacceptable is that this is done to appease the markets and rating agencies at the expense of workers,’ COSATU’s Gauteng Provincial Executive Committee (PEC) said.
‘The PEC regards this as a blatant betrayal of workers by the (African National Council) ANC-led government. We are encouraging all the workers and people of Gauteng to support the Cosatu National strike on the 7th October 2020.
‘This is the time to stand up and fight against corruption. Failure is not an option.’
While the strike action will primarily focus on the wage dispute, COSATU’s general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali said that the federation also wants South African president Cyril Ramaphosa to speed up prosecutions of corrupt individuals.
‘Ramaphosa must stop negotiating with criminals and use the only language that they will understand which is prosecution and sentencing,’ Ntshalintshali said.
Meanwhile, COSATU has pledged support to the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) which is also planning industrial action.
NEHAWU’s membership base exceeds 240,000 people, making it the largest public-sector union in the country, and last week it submitted a memorandum to the presidency outlining its demands, which include improving occupational health and safety uniformly in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as remuneration matters.
The issue of governmental wage increases will also take centre stage in the coming months as restrictions around the coronavirus pandemic are eased.
Public wages are set through bargaining with unions and these PSCBC agreements stay in force for three years. The current agreement is in place until March 2021.
However in February, government asked to review the last leg of a three-year pay agreement because it said it couldn’t afford it.
The coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated the country’s financial problems, and unions and the government are now set for a showdown.
The National Treasury plans to cut R160 billion from the public sector wage bill over the next three years – a position that has been met with opposition from public sector trade unions.
NEHAWU is demanding an 8% wage hike for front line workers, better working conditions and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) amongst other things.
The union is also demanding permanent appointments for more than 6,000 community health workers currently employed by the North West Health Department. Some of these workers have been with the department for more than 10 years assisting in its community outreach programme.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, they have been tracing contacts and undertaking screening at various community health centres. NEHAWU’s demand for the provincial health department to permanently appoint community health workers is gaining momentum.
The union says it raised the matter years ago, but there has been no commitment from the authorities.
Lorato Sampisi, a community health worker based at the Montshiwa town clinic, has been working as a community health worker for eight years. She is among those demanding to be employed permanently.
‘We are counsellors who are earning a stipend and we cannot afford as parents back at home to maintain our kids. We cannot also focus fully on our jobs because we are demoralised by the treatment that we are given by the department, by giving lesser payment to community health workers and by not recognising us in terms of skills development.’
NEHAWU Provincial Secretary, Patrick Makhafane, has accused the provincial health department of exploiting the community health workers.
‘They are treated as slaves and we think that must come to an end. They are the heartbeat of the Department of Health in so many aspects, not just primary health.
‘The recent example is Covid-19, they have excelled in delivering the services risking their lives saving the communities in the North West province.
‘Now, why do you keep them in a slavery entrapment of the temporary employment?
‘We think that any human being who is in their right frame of mind will not use people for more than 15 years in temporary employment without absorbing them permanently.’
Minister for Health, Madoda Sambatha, has admitted that they are in need of the services provided by these workers. But he says they do not have the funds to absorb them all.
‘We are now doing calculations of where are we going to get the money from. But the principle of us absorbing them, we agree. We are working on the issue of funding the absorption, and the principle that we have is that even if we had to absorb them, we will have to absorb all of them.’
Sambatha says it will cost more than R1.2 billion a year to permanently employ all the health workers.
NEHAWU members last week embarked on a nationwide protest demanding adequate Personal Protective Equipment for frontline workers and a wage increase.
They also want a wage increase.