Wage woes

21 12 2010

Some definitions:
NECA – National Employment Council for Agriculture. Part of the general NEC setup in Zimbabwe that helps set minimum wages and resolves disputes involving the latter.
CFU – Commercial Farmers’ Union. Once a very powerful union representing the commercial farmers in Zimbabwe it is now a shell of its former self due to the war of attrition on the commercial farmers by the government.
ALB – Agriculture Labour Bureau. The division of the CFU that deals with labour issues.
HPC – Horticulture Promotion Council. The organisation that looks after the interests of the commercial farmers in the export market.
ZFU – Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union. The union representing the mainly small scale black farmers.
GAPWUZ – General Agricultural and Plantation Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe. The largest (?) union representing the agricultural labour in Zimbabwe. Independent.
HGAPWUZ – Horticulture and General Agricultural and Plantation Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe. The government backed “other” labour union in Zimbabwe. Headed up by one Joseph Chinotimba, government bully boy of extraordinary brutality. An unimaginative lot as can be seen by the copying of the GAPWUZ name.

In the days of the Zimbabwe dollar the NECA was instrumental in bringing together various interested parties to set minimum wages; and essential task in the multi figure inflation of the time. They were admirably neutral and I used them on a few occasions to settle issues I had with my labour force when they went on strike or go-slows over various wage issues. All farming operations had to pay a levy which is currently set at US$1 per person on the labour force contributed by the worker with the employer contributing $1 per person too. The various unions representing both labour and employers also sat on the NECA  as members. Things started to go a bit wrong when the HGAPWUZ muscled its way into the market. It has never been a registered union and it is illegal to deal with it as such but after a while the GAPWUZ recognized that it was up against the big boys and buckled and HGAPWUZ was in the market. They came around to my workplace some years ago and made all sorts of extravagant promises and signed up most of the labour force away from GAPWUZ. The representative was an odious character both literally and figuratively and was always propositioning the women for sex. I made a point of telling him he was not “my friend” and refusing to shake his hand. I have not seen him since the US dollar took over as the official currency of Zimbabwe. That has not stopped the NEC and other parties from hiking the wages over the last 2 years.

By the beginning of this year the minimum wage for horticultural labour was $50 per month plus $7.50 for various allowances. I should explain here that horticultural wages have for many years been higher than general agricultural wages. This was because “horticulture” implied the business was exporting something and getting hard currency, an obvious advantage in the days of the Zimbabwe dollar. The ludicrous part of the definition was that many farmers were both exporters and local producers so two people doing exactly the same job but in different divisions of the same farm could earn vastly different wages. The export wages were at least 40% more than the local wages. Unfortunately my business is also classified as horticulture even though we have never exported. The “advantage” of exporting has now largely fallen away with the use of the US dollar locally.

In June this year an “official” notice came from the NECA stating that the minimum wage was now $70 per month and would be reviewed at the end of September. It was probably reasonable in that there had been some minor inflation but the ALB and the HPC cried foul. The person who’d signed for the employers’ unions was not authorized to do so and it transpired that the latter had never agreed to the wage increase. But by now the horse was well out of the stable and I increased the wages accordingly and passed on the increase to the customer appropriately. The exporters were not so lucky. Unable to pass on cost increases in a time of economic turmoil externally a number of them had to close. The HPC and others took the NECA to court. But the NECA did not stop there. Last month they announced ANOTHER wage hike of 20%  (to $84) and announced it with somer pretty aggressive newspaper advertising threatening those who did not comply with legal action.

I had noticed a few months back that the NECA had seemed to have lost its impartiality. One particularly obnoxious woman at the front desk had started to spout the government line against the various employers’ unions when I went there to pay dues. I have copies of various documents from the HPC and ALB that state that the NECA’s accounting has been less than transparent (and often totally absent) and various councillors have been claiming fat payment for turning up for meetings. I can’t also help wondering if this latest wage hike has something to do with the rumoured upcoming election i.e.  persuading the labour force to vote for those who have improved their lot.

This all came up today when I payed the staff their wages before Christmas. No I was not going to pay them the “new” wage. It is still in court over the previous increase and the courts have shut for the holiday and the various employers are cancelling their membership of the NECA and proposing setting up another as yet unnamed refereeing body. Yes they would get any backpay IF it ever became legal. I can cope with that but what really got my blood pressure up was the bonus issue (the Christmas bonus has become and unfortunate expectation in Zimbabwe over the years). Despite having been told repeatedly over the years that a bonus is a privilege not a right they just cannot seem to appreciate the difference. I made a testy comment that nobody ever seemed able to say thank you and be grateful for what they got when some 90% of Zimbabweans are unemployed. Thank you came the immediate reply, but why are we not getting as much as the neighbouring businesses? Eventually the foreman who was doing the translating had to attend to a customer so I took the opportunity to wander off too.

Wage hikes are damaging other sectors of the Zimbabwe economy too. Chatting to Harry who is in the wholesale garment industry he told me that they are being threatened with a minimum wage of $185 per month. He said exactly the same sort of hike sank the South African clothing industry some years ago and manufacturers moved their factories to the neighbouring states of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland where wages are less. Barry is in the furniture manufacturing industry and already they cannot compete with furniture imported from the previously mentioned states. “The unions have told us that they’d rather have fewer well paid workers than more people employed in a viable industry” he told me. “They just don’t care”.








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