Zimbabwe trade unions marching against corruption arbitrary arrests and abductions

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ZCTU president PETER MUTASA remonstrates with police outside the union’s offices in Harare

ZIMBABWE Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) president Peter Mutasa says the labour body will announce a series of dates for fresh protests after tomorrow’s Friday July 31 anti-corruption march.

In an interview with NewsDay Midlands Reporter Brenna Matendere (ND), Peter Mutasa (PM) spoke about harassment of trade unionists by the State, including arbitrary arrests and abductions.

ND: ‘What is your history in trade unionism?’

PM: ‘I joined a trade union in 1997 soon after getting employed by the Standard Chartered Bank. I was initially an unconcerned passive member of the trade union until I was unfairly dismissed in 1999 and was defended by the workers’ committee and union. That is when I became active and was elected in the workers’ committee. By 2003 I was the workers’ committee chairperson at Standard Chartered Bank and by 2005 was Zimbabwe Banks and Allied Workers’ Union (Zibawu) branch secretary.

‘In 2006, I was elected Zibawu vice-president, then president and now its general-secretary. In 2012, I was also elected ZCTU vice-president and president from 2016 to date.

‘At international level, I was honoured to be elected UNI Global Union Africa youth executive member and currently UNI Africa finance executive member. I was also an executive member of Southern African Trade Union Council.

‘The responsibilities came with risks and I was dismissed for trade union activities by an exploitative Standard Chartered Bank in 2007. We also face brutality daily from the State which includes arrests and abductions.’

ND: ‘Can you recount some of the worst cases of torture and persecution of ZCTU members?

PM: ‘Just like in colonial Rhodesia, trade union activists in Zimbabwe have suffered horrific brutalities at the hands of the State. There is no difference between Rhodesia treatment of trade unionists and Zimbabwe government practice.

‘For ZCTU, ever since we differed with the Zanu PF government on the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme, corruption, one party State and other governance, social and economic issues, we have been on the receiving end.

‘All our leaders Morgan Tsvangirai and Gibson Sibanda (all late), Wellington Chibebe and Lovemore Matombo, Japhet Moyo and George Nkiwane and now me have been abused by the State together with other activists.

‘We have been arrested, abducted, tortured, jailed, beaten and threatened. (The late MDC leader) Morgan Tsvangirai was almost assassinated at the ZCTU offices.

‘Wellington, Matombo and other leaders were badly beaten on September 13, 2006 and left for dead. Some eventually died from the injuries.

‘Moyo and I faced treason charges just for discharging our duties. These are recorded in various international labour records.’

ND: ‘Since the COVID-19 lockdown on March 30, how has been the life of a worker in Zimbabwe?’

PM: ‘Miserable. According to ZimStats, 76% of the 2.9 million employed persons above the age of 15 are holding an informal job. The lockdown policy failed to take into account these realities. The majority of these workers live from hand to mouth and have to work daily.

‘The lockdown destroyed many livelihoods as the informal sector was not allowed to operate. Markets stalls and other workplaces were also destroyed by government and local authorities. This left this huge group of the working class facing starvation, failing to pay rentals and online school fees for kids. The promised social assistance was never received by the expectant workers.

‘Even the formally employed group was not spared. Unlike other governments, ours failed to come up with measures to mitigate jobs and income losses. The government also failed to address health and safety requirements of all workers, especially those at the frontline.

‘As a result many workers lost employment. Many on fixed term and other less secure employment contracts lost jobs. In most cases these were mainly young workers and women. Workers were already earning far less than the poverty line, and the lockdown which resulted in some employers reducing salaries worsened the situation of most workers.

‘In short, an ill-prepared lockdown caused untold socio-economic suffering to workers. The government simply sentenced workers and vulnerable citizens to starvation and misery, then the security services added by perpetrating various human rights violations against citizens and workers. Many cases have been reported of police and military brutality during the lockdown.

‘In pursuit of corrupt buses purchasing deals, the government added the troubles of workers by trying to create a Zupco monopoly. Workers are struggling to travel to and from work daily – all this for some few cronies to benefit through the bus procurement scandal.’

ND: ‘A couple of weeks ago, you threatened that workers would embark on protests, what is the position now?’

PM: ‘We made a call for workers and citizens to liberate themselves through collective action. We also indicated that we are embarking on mobilisation of the workers around the country. This is going on and we are almost there. We need all workers to unite first around uniform demands. In the past, we had some discord, especially with some unions in public services, especially Zimbabwe Teachers Association who supported Zimdollar salaries. Out of a nasty experience, all unions are now agreed on our demands and all are mobilising members towards collective action. An announcement of the dates and form is coming any time.

‘Unless our demands are met, we are proceeding with serious concerted national strikes and peaceful protest action. Every day will be a day of protest and every space an arena of struggle until we shrug off the oppressive chains of a brutal dictatorship. The Zimbabwean government is now just like the colonial regime and even worse than (the late former President Robert) Mugabe’s last days. It is sad that we ended up having such a government 40 years after independence.’

ND: ‘There have been threats of protests set for July 31. Will ZCTU be mobilising its members to join in?’

PM: ‘Workers are citizens and stay within broader communities. It is natural that with or without mobilisation from their organisations, they may participate in citizens arranged activities.

‘At organisational level, the organisers visited us and we held discussions. We asked some important questions and received some responses. Our decisions are made democratically by the workers through our structures. We are currently consulting our structures for a definitive organisational position.’

ND: ‘Have you been following up on families of people who were killed in Harare by the army on January 2019 during the anti-fuel price hike protests you organised?’

PM: ‘There was no reason for the State to brutalise and kill citizens. It was simply a barbaric act by a government that intended to instil fear in citizens. The government was aware it was failing to provide solutions to the social and economic crises. It then sought to re-establish its coercive hegemony by brutalising citizens in order to instil fear.

‘Those in power have not repented and have not been remorseful on Gukurahundi and other atrocities they committed. They believe in coercing citizens through State brutality, but they must be held accountable. ZCTU is a member of various civil society coalitions. These coalitions have various organisations specialising in different areas including securing justice for those who are unjustly treated by the State security. All cases are documented and followed up by different specialised civic society organisations.’

ND: ‘Government during the lockdown imposed a $2 500 minimum wage when at that time the family food basket was about $10 000. Did you agree to that minimum wage?’

PM: ‘No, that was an arbitrarily imposed minimum wage by a government that clearly was not concerned about workers’ welfare. We had demanded and almost agreed that the minimum wage would be US$230. Without regard to many discussions we held, the minister woke up one day and announced this slave wage as the new minimum. This is a big joke and the reason why workers must fight back.

‘This minimum wage is just around US$23. Rent for a room is roughly US$20, which means the majority of workers are earning just sufficient to pay rentals for one room. What about food, clothing, school fees, medicalcare, transport, etc?

‘Domestic workers are earning $900, which is equivalent to US$8 while farm workers earn US$10. They can only buy a bucket of maize and probably a bottle of cooking oil for working for the whole month.

‘There is no slavery as glaring as this in the modern world. The government has failed workers.’

ND: ‘What is ZCTU’s current position on pushing for minimum wage and how much are you looking at?’

PM: ‘We have not moved from our demand of US dollar minimum wage. In fact, the government has moved to allow all businesses to charge in US dollars. There is no justification for workers to continue working for Zimdollars when prices of goods and services are now in hard currency.

‘We, therefore, restate our demand for US$600 minimum wage and for workers to get ready for collective action.’

ND: ‘What are your long-term plans as ZCTU to better the lives of workers?’

PM: ‘We are immediately seized with ensuring that workers get a reasonable minimum wage as a matter of urgency. Our focus is on poverty datum line-linked US dollar salaries in order to restore eroded workers’ dignity. We also aim to end all forms of workplace abuses; these including Chinese physical abuse of workers, racism, sexual harassment, wage theft etc.

‘We also want an immediate change in the manner our country is governed. We have to fight against corruption, exploitation of our resources, illicit financial flows, shrinking democratic space, human and trade union violations as well as other governance deficiencies causing untold suffering to citizens.

‘For a long time, we have been demanding labour law reforms and this is a demand we are pursuing. Our current labour laws and judgments have reinstated colonial master and servant labour relations. Remember the Zuva and other judgments which literally withdrew all the labour rights we gained, has to be corrected.

‘We also have generated a lot of policy documents on social and economic reforms. We believe this rentier and crony capitalistic economy must be urgently reformed and we are focusing on that as well. Neoliberalism, austerity and other fascist economic policies must end. The informal sector must be recognised, supported, formalised and respected.

‘We want the majority of workers to own a house because land was expropriated for free. All children must be in school and not in child labour. All households must have potable water, energy and ablution facilities. Our resources and economic capabilities can support such an egalitarian solidarity.

‘Internally, we are focusing on uniting all workers under the ZCTU. We, therefore, aim to develop sustainable, independent and strong affiliates across all sectors. This should lead to increased union density in the long run that will build workers collective power.’