Monday, October 1, 2007

Don't Cross the Picket Line: Analysis of 2 Labor Forces on Strike in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe: a country once considered the “breadbasket of Africa” with endless resources. But what happened to all the bread? It has literally disappeared from the country. Recent disappointing grain harvests have snatched bread off the shelves of Zimbabwe’s markets, along with many other basic items. The country has become starving for food and begging for regime change. President Robert Mugabe (pictured in the graphic to the left) has ruled the country with an iron fist since its independence from Britain in 1980, and at 83 years old, caused more destruction than he cares to admit. Due in part to the deteriorating conditions of the country, two critical labor forces, teachers and doctors and nurses, have gone on strike in the past week, leaving the numerous Zimbabweans they serve defeated and perplexed. While the government should consider the demands of the strikers and realize the impact the absence of these crucial workers will have on an increasingly fragile country, it is highly likely that it will continue to underestimate the potential of the situation as a serious threat.

The doctors and nurses of Zimbabwe were the first to go on strike last week, followed shortly by teachers and university employees, both academic and non-academic. All parties have been on a “go-slow” this past week, where they gradually ease into outright refusal to show up for work. This is because of the government severely underpaying both doctors and nurses. Teachers also suffer due to poor wages, but add “appalling working conditions” to their list of grievances. The two union groups organizing the strike are the Zimbabwe Teacher’s Association (ZIMTA), and Progressive Teacher’s Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ). They insist upon not returning to work until the government agrees to raise their basic pay, allocating the government a week to act. University employees are also asking for more money, both lecturers and non-academic staff. Most appallingly, the poverty datum line (PDL) has recently been set at Z$12 million per month in September, and current nursing and teaching salaries are grossly below this, while doctors are just barely within reach.

The abandon of the public service sector by its most important employers should appropriate the utmost attention of the government. First, many doctors and teachers are simply abandoning the country to look for better work in neighboring countries, “flee[ing] the economic crisis that has driven other professionals to foreign lands”. There is already a vacancy level of over 65% in lecturer positions in universities across the country, and it only aims to worsen, especially if the government does not heed warnings. If all the teachers and doctors decide to leave, no one will be left to educate the youth and take care of the sick, leaving the remaining population of Zimbabwe extremely vulnerable. This nightmare has already become a partial reality, in seeing kids wandering aimlessly through city streets in uniform during school hours, and many patients being abandoned in hospitals and left to die. Perhaps a most notable story is that of a famous guitarist who was hospitalized, but “because the doctors and nurses are on a go slow, no one was able to tend to him”, and he died on Wednesday night after being found collapsed and unconscious in the streets of Harare.

Second, living conditions on the whole in Zimbabwe have risen to a crisis level. There is a vast shortage of food, including staples such as bread and gasoline. Chronic power outages caused by shortages of coal and equipment plague the country, sweeping over vast distances several times daily. Not to mention the inflation rate is the world’s highest, currently at a whopping 6,600%, while 80% of adults are unemployed. Unfortunately, disaster is nearly upon this frail country. The World Food Program and UN Food and Agriculture Organization both agree on the dismal fact that by early next year, 1/3 of Zimbabwe’s population will need emergency food aid. In a country on such a downhill slope, the abandon of all civil servants and the educated populace serves as a near death sentence. Without these laborers who work to make people’s lives better by curing the sick or educating the new generations, there is no hope for Zimbabwe. When all the educated, professional peoples are gone, what will be left?

Despite such factors, the government is likely to remain unfazed. These same sectors have gone on strike before, and in the case of the doctors, they reached a settlement months ago. They were told new vehicles were part of the settlement, but have yet to see the government honor any of its promises. In the case of the teachers, they have engaged in talks regarding salary adjustments with the government before, only for the government to continue “refus[ing] to award teachers salaries pegged to the poverty datum line as the teachers demanded”. Both sides have fought this battle already, but have come out defeated in every turn, succumbing to false promises or alleged “intimidation practices” utilized by the government, such as text-message death threats and “uninvited guests” showing up to union member’s doors.

In addition, Mugabe is unaffected by the suffering of his people, because he has mismanaged the economy for 27 years to benefit himself and his closest cronies. He sits full and content while his people are greeted with empty shelves upon entering grocery and basic supply stores, as seen in the graphic to the right. The refugee situation where professionals are leaving the country by the thousands also works out to Mugabe’s benefit. He has a close friendly relationship with South African president Thabo Mbeki, whose country is the destination of many distraught Zimbabweans. But these doctors, engineers, agriculture specialists, and teachers are “just the kind of people who are needed by South Africa's growing economy”, and are welcomed into the country with open arms instead of as perceived burden. As for Mugabe, he remains un-pressured by his buddy Mbeki to reform his dying country, and even in the fleeing of professional workers, gets rid of those who oppose him and reaps the benefits of them sending money, meant to help support family left behind, right back into the corrupt country.

Hopefully, this time will be different. Maybe the teachers and doctors will hold their ground, and make it known that the government cannot sway them from their ultimate goal, no matter what. And perhaps this would catalyst into an entire social movement for change. Regrettably though, as of right now, history and circumstance does not bode well for this direction.

1 comment:

AK said...

I would first like to thank you for writing on such an important –and challenging– issue. Your comments are very interesting, and you are extremely well-informed about the tragedy in Zimbabwe. Further, your image of President Robert Mugabe fits perfectly with your statement that he “has ruled the country with an iron fist.” While it seems necessary that the both the teachers and doctors do something in order to advocate political and economic change, their current strategy does not seem to be moving their agenda forward. As you suggest, and I agree, “Hopefully this time will be different”. Until then, however, it is very depressing to hear that “by early next year, 1/3 of Zimbabwe’s population will need emergency food aid”. I would like to know, if possible, how both The World Food Program and UN Food and Agriculture Organization, with such accurate predictions on Zimbabwe’s future state, do not do more to fight against the government in power? It is devastating to know that Zimbabwe’s current leader, President Robert Mugabe, has been in political power for over 27 years, and while you mention that this is not the first time Zimbabwe’s citizens have sought change through peaceful strike, what evidence is there that this time will be different?

It will be interesting to see what happens as a result of this strike (if anything!). I would argue, and I hope you agree that the people of Zimbabwe need a new strategy; outside help, from the UN or even the United States, may be the only answer. I would like to know why these third parties are not more involved. Further, why do you think the public service sector is on strike again, when they have failed before? Although you state that the abandonment of the “public service sector by its most important employers should appropriate the utmost attention of the government,” I would add to this that third parties need to pay more attention, too.

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