HARARE – Scenes of unpaid workers in agitated mood showing up in person to hold employers hostage have not yet become much of a common feature at cash-strapped firms.
But simmering discontent might prompt hordes of rankled employees to snap hard on their employers’ heels demanding arrear salaries as happened in post-independence war America when participants reached the end of the tether over unpaid dues.
Back then persistent haunting was sufficient incentive to send beleaguered authorities fleeing in all direction ahead of ill-clothed, hungry, and increasingly impatient war volunteers.
It has not happened yet at such a scale.
Yet, replica scenarios are gradually shaping up at various flagging enterprises in the city as a stubborn liquidity crunch throttles efforts to resuscitate industrial firms tittering on the brink.
Hundreds of workers have gone for months without pay.
Instead of picketing job lines demanding wage increases as has been custom in the past, the workers have turned to staging work boycotts to pressure employers to pay them outstanding salaries and wages.
And desperate to keep firms running some employers have resorted to reducing the workforce hoping that re-configuring staff complements could allow them leeway to pull through hard times.
Company executives have learnt to duck and dive in the face of worker’s unstinting demands.
For the past seven months, a 38-year-old mechanic has religiously reported for duty as his workplace in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city and erstwhile industrial hub.
Despite such show of commitment, he and his co-workers at a subsidiary of the National Railway parastatal have gone for seven months without pay.
The motor mechanic at Road Motor Services says since March this year workers have not been paid by the road haulage company and management seems not to be making efforts to resolve their plight.
“We have gone for months without getting a salary and when we confront management we are promised that we will soon get paid when the company’s dire financial position improves. Every employee works daily and performs stipulated duties but still that does not change the situation,” the motor mechanic lamented.
He said the company financial manager makes promises that workers will get paid but for more than half the year now there has been no let up.
“The managing director has never addressed us as workers to update us if there is any progress in solving the problem we are facing,” he said.
“Workers have gone for two years without protective clothing yet we undertake risky tasks that expose us to danger. None of these problems have been addressed.”
The road haulage company has a complement of 163 but only three get paid and the rest wonders how that is possible.
“Those employers were shocked to hear us complain about having gone for so long unpaid. When we question management we don’t get satisfactory answers how some workers get paid while the rest go without,” the mechanic charged.
The case of workers at the road haulage company epitomises what has become a common practice among parastatals and private sector companies battling to survive in an inclement economic environment characterised by credit squeeze and tight money.
A security guard who preferred anonymity for fear of victimisation said his company’s contingent of security guards faces an identical dilemma.
They too have gone for several months without pay.
“We no longer know how long this will last. At times we are lucky to get $50 as some form of monthly honorarium in dribs and drabs.”
Another unpaid security guard said: “Our salaries used to be deposited in banks but now we receive pittance in cash,” the distraught security guard bemoaned.
“We still need to feed clothe and send our children to school but find it extremely difficult to fulfil that parental obligation. As family men, we feel emasculated when we can’t fend for our families because employers let us down.”
Last year, disgruntled workers at his firm discovered that their employer had withheld remitting pension and social security payment to the National Social Security Authority (NSSA).
Out of desperation, unpaid workers have resorted to trudging a beaten path to media houses, hoping to get their plight publicise hoping to shame their employers into taking action.
A majority fear being named, in case they lose those jobs that are a source of their anguish.
In October this year at least 175 employees at Marvo Stationery Manufacturers that had gone unpaid for eight months appealed to government to come to their rescue as salary disputes remain unresolved.
This is despite that the company was one of the 31 companies that received a loan of more than $750 000 under the Distressed Marginalised Areas Fund (Dimaf) early this year.
Disgruntled workers painted a dire situation at the company where municipal water supplies had been disconnected over unpaid bills.
“We are now concerned by the manner in which our employer is treating us,” workers’ spokesperson Mbonisi Gumbo says, decrying that the situation had rendered them “employed destitutes”.
“Our hopes were raised when the company received Dimaf funds. We still wonder what happened to the fund because the situation has not changed one bit for us,” he said.
Workers owed between $3 000 and $15 000 in unpaid salaries, fail to comprehend why the company opted to import finished stationery products from South Africa when its machines are fully operational and had the capacity to meet the demand.
They charged that the company was not remitting their monthly pension benefits to NSSA as required by law
In March this year, the workers approached the Labour Court to force their employer to settle the salary arrears dating back to 2009.
Workers won their case but the company still dithers.
Chug along the maze of streets in Bulawayo’s industrial sites and witness how the chimneys atop factory building that earned the city the moniker “Kontuthu Ziyathunqa” (smoke that rises) for its robust industrial activity have given up the ghost.
Gradual de-industrialisation together with government and investor inertia have combined to remove the gloss off many of the factory buildings which now lie in various stages of dereliction.
With an increasing number of struggling firms going burst, workers’ fears of losing out completely on terminal benefits and pension contributions in the end are rising.