Inside a garment and face mask manufacturing factory.Bulawayo, 24 April 2020.
Inside a garment and face mask manufacturing factory. Bulawayo, 24 April 2020.beeld:

‘Between corona and hunger, one will kill us first’

The Corona virus has not only impacted the health system in Zimbabwe but the broader socio- economic system, including the workplace. The virus has necessitated a structural change of the workplace.

Working remotely has become a reality for most workers while some sectors have had to shut down completely. A lot of livelihoods and jobs are on the line. Changes in workplace organisation have resulted in new methods of activism and reignited debate on the county’s social protection mechanisms.

Partners have been proactive in their response to COVID 19. This includes reviving radio as channel of activism. Radio is a blind and easily accessible form of awareness. The ZCTU and LEDRIZ have a radio initiative discussing implications of the virus for working class communities. The programme is holistic, bringing together a panel comprising of trade unions, government and labour experts. Workers phone in with their concerns. GAPWUZ also has a radio jingle encouraging educating workers on how to protect themselves against the virus.

While the impact of the virus is felt throughout the world, in Zimbabwe the impact is devastating given the country’s economic challenges. Speaking in the phone in radio programme the ZCTU president, Peter Mutasa described the situation as a ‘crisis within a crisis’. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), 34% of the population live in extreme poverty. The government is rolling out a ZWL200 per person per month package over the next three months to cushion the most vulnerable households against the socio- economic impact of COVID 19. This is however falls below the ZWL 6200 poverty datum line and therefore is clearly not enough. This in a country where a loaf of bread costs ZWL30. Trade unions and labour experts are pushing for the support to be extended to workers in agriculture arguing that they are also vulnerable given their low salaries.

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Factory workers in action at a bed assembling company in Bulawayo. The company will supply beds to Ekusileni Hospital which has been identified as one of the Covid19 isolation centres in Zimbabwe. Bulawayo, 24 April 2020.beeld:

The advent of COVID 19 makes the debate on social protection more critical now more than ever. Social protection is based on the principle of social solidarity and pooling of resources and risks. A threat in income security has direct implications for food security, dignity and upward social mobility. The National Social Security Authority (NSSA) defines the provision of social security as; ‘instituting public policy measures intended to protect an individual in life situations in which their livelihood and wellbeing may be threatened, such as those engendered by sickness, workplace injuries, unemployment, invalidity, old age and retirement and death.’ In reality however, only 2 percent of the population is covered by some sort of monthly pension / social security scheme. This leaves 98 percent of the population vulnerable to the direct and indirect shocks of COVID-19 pandemic. The Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC) projects that 75% of informal jobs would be lost, and this is already a sector that is already outside the social protection framework. Clearly there is need to extend the ambit of social protection is evident.

Structural re-organisation of the workplace has led to a reversal in labour and socio economic rights. Income security is increasingly threatened as industries shut down. Salaries and wages remain unpaid as employers find it difficult to balance a declining economy and COVID 19 impact. The Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) recently revealed that 82% of companies will not be able to pay salaries beyond one month, and some companies have already laid off workers, while some workers have been put on forced leave. In sectors that remain operational a number of employers are reportedly abandoning their responsibility to cater for risk allowance. Their argument is that they are already putting safety measures at the workplace. This raises safety and occupational health concerns. The anxiety of workers is apparent, ‘…between corona and hunger one will kill worker’s first’, a worker lamented. Speaking in the programme a labour activist cautioned, ‘Workers are exposed, essential service workers have no PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), unlike business where it’s a loss of dollars, for workers and citizens it’s a loss of lives.’

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Passengers on a commuter bus observe social distancing as a police officer checks their passes allowing them into the CBD. Bulawayo, 20 April 2020.beeld:

According to the 2019 Labour Force and Child Labour Survey only 7% of population has medical aid, leaving 93 percent exposed. Treasury’s has announced plans to set up health insurance for government workers directly involved in COVID-19 fight. The scheme is however aimed at government health sector workers, leaving all other workers exposed and vulnerable. The country wouldn’t be in this difficult position if there was a viable social protection framework in place. Social security is critical in buttressing socio economic rights and weakening the effects on inequalities.

The government’s plans to mitigate COVID 19 impact are not enough and at best not sustainable. For example, a temporary financial support to the most vulnerable households, falls below poverty datum line. A price freeze is not sustainable. Clearly there is a need for a coherent social security system that promotes equity and opportunities for the vulnerable. Measures need to address the COVID 19 period and beyond. It is noteworthy that discussions on establishing an unemployment fund in the near future have begun at the Tripartite Negotiating Forum (TNF).