The MDC battle over Labour Amendment Act

17 July 2015 marked the beginning of the worst nightmare in history for Zimbabwean workers in the private sector with the handing down of the Supreme Court judgment allowing the termination, by employers, of employees’ contracts on notice.

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By Jessie Majome (MP)

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By Jessie Majome (MP)

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Retrenchment packages that had, over decades, become the norm in economically induced dismissals were lost with one fell stroke of the Supreme Court pen.

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Don Nyamande and Kingston Donga, whose faces we may never know, literally became, almost overnight, unwitting legends in the loss of their appeal against their erstwhile employer, Zuva Petroleum.

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From there, it was a rapid descent to employment hell ironically propelled by government’s wily and deceptive legislative attempts to stop the haemorrhage.

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Approximately 22700 workers were immediately jettisoned aboard by employers taking advantage of the Zuva case. Most of these workers were fired by the State from its own enterprises that it paralysed with mesmerizing mismanagement of both the actual enterprises, and the economy in general.

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The long list of those included the National Railways of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, The Grain Marketing Board and the Zimbabwe National Roads Authority.

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Ironically, and with incredible chutzpah, the government hastily brought a badly drafted Bill purportedly to stem the job losses. 18 August in the National Assembly and 20 August in the Senate will go down in history as two days on which an epic battle to redeem workers’ rights was lost after a gallant fight by MDC T teams in Parliament.

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The government craftily used the Labour Amendment Bill Trojan horse to stem the mass firings of workers by making compensation for job losses compulsory while simultaneously dealing mortal blows to the workers rights. This veritable legislative Trojan horse smuggled in mortal attacks to several constitutionally entrenched international labour standards.

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In this vein, the hallowed rights of workers to organise and negotiate their employment conditions were trammeled by the Minister of Labour’s new wide powers to appoint virtual curators to both trade unions and employment councils by using wide sweeping and flimsy excuses.

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Similarly, she smuggled in the dangerously vague and politically exploitable excuse of ‘public interest’ for refusing to register collective bargaining agreements.

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She also front-loaded a reduction of existing retrenchment package rights by taking away the power of trade unions to negotiate advantageous packages by introducing the ‘one size fits all’ paltry 2 weeks’ pay for every year worked and abolishing severance and relocation pay.

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The sum total of the amendments was crafty sugar-coating of a bitter pill to swallow. The MDC T team in Parliament, which was recently described by the MDC T President Morgan Tsvangirai as a numerical minority yet a moral majority, lost no time in rolling up its sleeves to hack away, with gusto, at the false sweet coating on these attacks to workers’ rights.

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On 18 August in the National Assembly, MDC T MP after MDC T MP, led by the Leader of the Opposition Hon. Thokozani Khupe, launched a spirited attacks on those toxic provisions of the Bill which would in fact leave workers worse off.

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Her main thrust was to highlight the need for the ruling party to address the root cause of the labour crisis i.e. economic revival.

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MDC T MPs from trade union trenches naturally took the lead with the others also fighting valiantly among them Hon. Members Paurina Mpariwa, Gift Chimanikire, Amos Chibaya, Tarusenga, Mutseyami, Maridadi, and the writer all spoke in a manner that compelled the minister to concede to their points of view as constructive and undertake to factor them in her Bill.

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But that is where the deception started.

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At the committee stage where MPs get a chance to propose amendments to Bills clause by clause, the chair Gideon Marumahoko of ZANU PF made a farce of the process by undemocratically and brashly stampeding through that stage while blocking the amendments proposed mainly by Hon. Nelson Chamisa to improve the Bill by eliminating the toxins mentioned above.

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This hostile railroading was despite the minister’s apparently insincere concessions as she ensured the Bill passed in its unchanged form.

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The MDC T leadership in the House led by Hon. Gonese the Whip Chief was compelled to appeal to the Speaker against this travesty and the minister, together with the Speaker, promised again to address the proposed amendments when they were transmitted to the Senate.

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The MDC T duly complied with the procedure of giving notice of the amendments to be transmitted to the Senate.

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In the Senate, Senators Marava, an MDC T Chief whip together with Senators Mlotshwa and Timveous, led the move to amend the Bill.

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Their proposals were rejected in knee jerk responses that created another farcical and perfunctory committee stage, causing the MDC T Senators to storm out of the House in protest.

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This was after the MDC T Senate team, among them Senators B. Sibanda, Komichi. Ncube, Carter,Makore, Moketsi, Ncube, Chimhini, Makone, Hlalo and Chimanikire weighed in spiritedly, even to castigate the breakneck speed at which the Bill was coasting, which was guaranteed to undermine its quality, and its failure to also balance the interests of job creation. ZANU PF MPs were in apparent unanimous support of the Bill.

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Again, in a consistent show of the ZANU PF government’s total disregard of concerns to improve the Bill so that it truly protects workers, the minister succeeded in passing the Bill without an iota of changes.

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While that battle was lost, bravely, the war for fair labour standards and a just society is not lost.

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Aluta continua!

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Jessie Majome is MP for Harare West and the MDC’s Secretary for Justice, Legal, Constitutional & Parliamentary Affairs in the Movement for Democratic Change

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