Saturday, January 31, 2009

Strikes loom over forex demands
Friday, 30 January 2009
ZIMBABWE is headed for a stormy collective bargaining period that might cripple further operations across all sectors of the economy.Workers throughout the country have been protesting against remuneration in Zimbabwe dollars and asking for payment of salaries in foreign currency in the wake of the partial dollarisation of the economy.In a clear sign that the workers are distraught, employees at the Nati-onal Railways of Zim-babwe have been on strike for the past month, protesting low pay and poor working conditions.On Wednesday last week, the country's postal service ground to a halt as Zimpost workers downed their tools demanding that they be paid in hard currency.Not to be outdone, employees at the Zim-babwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) followed suit a day later, resulting in some parts of Harare going for days without water at a time when the country is battling an outbreak of cholera.Hard on the heels of the ZINWA strike has been that of council employees from Harare and Bulawayo municipalities, which effectively halted service delivery in the country's two major cities.And on Friday, the Apex Council - the bargaining unit of the entire public service - announced it had reached a deadlock with its employer over the payment of civil servants salaries in foreign currency.Union leaders said they were mulling industrial action, joining thousands of employees in the private sector who have not bothered to report for duty after the traditional festive season break.The latest job actions and disgruntlement come as the country's public schools this week opened with skeletal staff after teachers reportedly refu-sed to report for duty until their demands were met.Teachers have set their demands at a minimum salary of US$2,200 per month.The government had delayed the start of the new school year by two weeks due to chaos in the education sector.Results of last year's public examinations were by yesterday still to be released, including Grade Seven results despite the fact that Form One pupils were due to begin classes on Tuesday.Economist John Robertson warned that the government and tottering companies would battle to acquire enough foreign currency to maintain operations and pay salary bills in foreign currency.Robertson said the country should brace for more strikes unless a political solution was found to address the country's economic woes.The foreign currency craze became inevitable in September last year when the government licensed about 1,000 shops to sell their goods and services in foreign currency."Business and the generality of the population have lost interest in accepting the Zimbabwe dollar as workers and anyone offering a service now demand to be paid in foreign currency," said Robertson."These strikes point to the desperate need in government for actual answers to the woes facing the country. I am certain we are going to see more of these strikes moreso when the political leaders are refusing to bury the hatchet."No one, including domestic workers, wants to be paid in Zimbabwe dollars. But business can't borrow foreign currency to pay salaries. Every lender chooses to lend those who are going to invest the money not borrow to spend," said Robertson.Zimbabweans now pin their hopes on the successful implementation of the long awaited inclusive government involving President Robert Mugabe, Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara after the Southern African Development Commu-nity directed that the protagonists form a unity government by February 15."I am sure and certain that we are going to see more and more of these strikes unless and until a final political solution is found," said Robertson.Lovemore Matombo, the president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the country's largest labour body, said workers were increasingly getting impatient with the dilly-dallying by employers to pay them in foreign currency.The general council of the ZCTU resolved that all its affiliates should negotiate wages in terms of the United States dollar failure of which they should direct their members to withdraw their labour."It is not the fault of the workers but they are responding to the realities on the ground," said Matombo."We are aware some employers want to resist, but they are doing this at their own peril," he added.Zimbabwe Union of Journalists president Matthew Takaona, on Monday last week wrote to all media houses informing them of the labour body's resolution on wage bargaining."For the compelling reasons cited by the ZCTU General Council, it is instructive that all works councils comply and all workers be paid in foreign currency," reads part of Takaona's letter.An official with the Employers Confede-ration of Zimbabwe, speaking on condition of anonymity, said fears abounded that most companies would be forced to close shop as they were already bleeding."We are waiting for direction from the financial authorities but it does not augur well for most companies especially those that are not exporting," said the official.

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