‘Massive company closures, job losses on cards’. . . Govt must come up with stimulus package
©️ ZIMBABWE is on the brink of an economic implosion due to the ravaging effects of the deadly coronavirus outbreak and the disease is likely to trigger company closures and massive job loses around the globe.
Our reporter Blessings Mashaya last week sat down with Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) president Peter Mutasa for his perspective on the impact of Covid-19, below are excerpts of the interview.
Q: What are the impacts of Covid-19 on workers?
A: Covid-19 is a serious global pandemic with unprecedented effects throughout the globe. Zimbabwe has not been spared as we are currently going through an unprecedented lockdown.
Zimbabwean workers are affected in different ways and this also differs based on the sector one is employed in.
First, many of the workers are exposed to infections. The majority of workers use overcrowded public transport and many lack resources to buy the necessary protective equipment. Many workers in the services sector whose jobs involve person-to- person contact are at great risk of infection.
In Zimbabwe, as a result of the economic crisis, the majority of workers do not have medical aid and rely on the dilapidated public health services and that means workers and their families are at risk of contracting and dying from this disease.
Secondly, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on global trade and production as countries impose lockdowns as preventive measures.
Many workers in the formal sector face job insecurity. We don’t know when this will end, but some companies may face some viability problems, endangering jobs.
During the lockdown, some employers have been taking advantage of workers and refusing to pay them for the period of the lockdown.
In the informal sector, workers have basically lost their livelihoods. The majority live from hand to mouth and the Covid-19-induced lockdown has robbed them of their livelihoods and forced them into abject poverty and starvation. Many of them are going to be bankrupt after the lockdown.
All these challenges have also led to a serious psychological impact on workers and their families.
Q: What do you think can be done by government and employers to help workers in these difficult circumstances?
A: Both the government and employers have a duty to care for citizens and employees respectively. The epidemic exposes the ills of capitalism which are exploitation, repression, inequality and oppression.
The majority of workers, even those working for big banks, telecom companies and insurance giants, cannot miss one pay check and survive. Many still have to moonlight to supplement the meagre salaries they earn. Our economies are serving a few and rigged against the majority.
There is need, therefore, for companies to pay all workers and grant them paid leave during the lockdown. Employers have to ensure that workers and their families are food secure during the period and beyond.
A few are trying and have paid workers above the normal salaries and provided additional support such as food and hygiene products.
The majority, however, have not done so. We also expect employers to ensure the safety of their workers by making the workplace safe and providing protection to their workers and customers.
Employers must provide suitable transport for the workers in essential services as well as hazard allowances and life assurance covers.
The government has a role to ensure that workplaces are safe by enacting relevant regulations and enforcing them. We also expect government, in light of the lockdown and general vulnerabilities, to provide social security and social welfare to those at risk.
The majority of workers face starvation and the government has to ensure that there is sufficient social protection. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that during the lockdown, no citizen will starve.
The government must provide cash transfers equivalent to the food poverty line, which was around $1 800 in January 2020.
The government must provide free electricity and water to homes as well as making basic food items available at subsidised prices. We expect massive free testing and free treatment in all hospitals.
Beyond the lockdown, the government has huge responsibilities too. It has to come up with a stimulus package that ensures that companies resume production, workers are paid better salaries and the informal sector players are financed.
For once, this pandemic must teach government to provide for the majority through developing and upgrading public services such as health and transport.
Austerity has to end, open for business has to be redefined and the economy refocused to providing for the majority and not a few.
We expect a big economic structural reformation around the world that ensures that the wealth of nations serves all the people not a few elites.
Q: Is government doing enough to fight coronavirus?
A: Unfortunately our government is not doing enough. First, unlike across the Limpopo and across the Zambezi, the government has not been consulting sufficiently.
Currently it has failed to unite the country for this common cause. Secondly its unilateral interventions are inadequate. So far it has announced that it will be securing livelihoods of one million households through cash transfers.
This amounts to $200 per household per month which is not even sufficient to purchase a 10kg packet of mealie-meal.
The government has also been failing to address health services challenges. Doctors and nurses have been on strike due to low salaries and lack of protective clothing.
Again, the government has allowed and exempted a number of companies to operate during the lockdown but without important safeguards, thereby endangering the safety and health of workers.
On the medical side, we don’t see a structured mass testing programme and we lack in terms of preparedness should we get lots of infections.
So while the government is trying to mitigate, its efforts are still nugatory. There is need for urgent dialogue between government, business and labour to come up with a good strategy.
Q: Worldwide they are concerns of job losses because of coronavirus, do you think the same can be said for Zimbabwe?
A: The ILO has estimated that between three and 25 million jobs may be lost to Covid-19. Zimbabwe was already facing a serious economic crisis manifesting itself through hyperinflation, foreign currency shortages, low capacity utilisation, energy shortages exchange rate instability, etc. Covid-19 effects are going to increase the risk of job losses. Without serious and proper policy reforms, we are going to lose many jobs and witness a sizeable number of company closures.
Q: As workers representatives, what measures are you taking so that you can avoid job losses?
A: Our challenges are a result of macroeconomic policies, governance and political factors. Trade union efforts such as collective bargaining are failing to improve workers’ conditions because the problem is macro in nature.
So we have focused on the Tripartite Negotiating Forum (TNF) to push for reforms. We are pushing government to come up with economic reforms such as currency reforms, moving away from austerity and other neo-liberal policies that have failed us.
We are also pushing for labour law reforms to protect workers and align our labour legislation to the Constitution and International Labour Standards.
After realising that we cannot possibly move forward as a country without a political settlement between the feuding political players, we are calling for serious political dialogue.
At TNF we are also demanding that government must decisively deal with corruption, mismanagement of parastatals, illicit financial outflows and state capture by parasitic cartels. We face a mammoth task and we cannot progress without serious economic, social and political reforms.
Only when we embark on these reforms will we save the jobs we have and create more. We are also mobilising and educating workers to be ready to collectively defend their rights and interests in terms of the Constitution of the country.
Q: Lockdown, do you think the period is enough for workers to come back to work?
A: In our context the period is actually too long. The majority of our people cannot survive without real interventions by government.
However, from what we see happening in other countries, it may turn out to be inadequate to break the chains of infection. It is not just the period but what we are doing or failing to do during that period.
The government has not managed to carry our massive testing, isolation and treatment exercises. So the 21 days may just pass without us fully utilising them to identify the cases, isolate and manage them.
I hope we will be able to balance the need to continue with lives and the danger the disease poses. It is a difficult situation we are in and many of us are now looking up to God for protection.
Q: Do you have any reports of companies that are forcing workers to come to work?
A: We have received reports of workers being forced to work without adequate protection in mining, banking, and in other non-essential services. We hear some Chinese companies are the main culprits.
We are also receiving reports of companies that are in essential services or that have been exempted but are failing to provide protection to their employees. The private security sector, manufacturing and agriculture are the main problem areas.
Q: What advice can you give to workers during this period?
A: Workers should never die for a job. Companies will recruit a replacement even before your burial. We must therefore prioritise our safety and health.
Workers must report to their unions or the ZCTU any infringements they are facing during this difficult time.
We will gladly assist them. It is also lawful for workers to refuse to work if their safety and health is in danger. We also urge workers to understand how crony capitalism is a danger to the welfare of the nation.
We now have a few who have good and well equipped hospitals and the majority has to die in under equipped public hospitals. Workers have to learn how cartels and corruption puts everyone at danger in times of need.
Zimbabwe is endowed with natural wealth but there is nothing to show for all the gold, chrome, platinum, diamond, etc being panned and mined daily. We don’t have hospitals, no social security and protection.
We can’t pay doctors and nurses during such a crisis. There must come a time when workers and other citizens come together and demand social justice.
Only through collective action will we make government accountable to the people and not cronies and corrupt cartels.
The workers must lead the citizens to recapture the State from the jaws of the parasitic cartels.
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