“What should I do? Stay at home and starve?” – wage theft leaves Zimbabwe’s workers with an impossible dilemma

Nancy Musonza stands outside her house on the outskirts of Harare on 25 July 2018. Nancy is one of 50 workers at the Blue Line Dry Cleaners in Harare, Zimbabwe who have not been paid their full wages since November 2014. (Tamara Gausi)

[This article is accompanied by the mini-documentary ‘Working Without Pay in Zimbabwe’.Click here to watch the full video.]

Imagine having a job that hasn’t paid you for four years. Imagine having to go to that job and work every day as if it had. Nancy Musonza doesn’t have to imagine this predicament; she is currently living this nightmare. The 49-year-old wife and mother-of-three is a laundry sorter at the Blue Line Dry Cleaners in Southerton, Harare where she has been working since 2008. Four years ago, she became the victim of what is known as ‘wage theft’, the non or part-payment of wages over months or even years.

“It started in November 2014,” she tells Equal Times from her small, two-room, wooden house on the outskirts of Harare. “We were doing our work normally, but it just started abruptly. We were getting ten dollars, we were getting three dollars…until he stopped giving us [our pay]. So what he does is, he pays us three months, then he jumps. If he pays us January, February, March, then he stops. The he pays August, September, then he stops.”

Nancy wakes up at five o’clock every morning to do chores for her neighbours. It is this money that allows her to pay for her transport to work. When asked why she continues to go to work when she essentially pays to do so, Nancy tells Equal Times that she has no choice. “What should I do? Stay at home and starve?”

As an older woman in a country with the second largest informal economy in the world, Nancy knows her employment prospects are extremely limited, and since she hasn’t been paid properly for four years, she doesn’t have the capital to start her own business.

“It’s now my tenth year at work. If I resign, he won’t pay me anything. I know this from the experience of the other ones who have resigned [Editor’s note: in July 2015, 20 workers were even suspended without pay for asking for their outstanding salaries]. At least if I stay there is a chance that one day he will pay me what he owes me. Sometimes, he [the company director, Narendrakumar Zavery] pays us 15 dollars, and then I can go and buy some mealie meal [Zimbabwe’s staple food] so that my family can eat. But we are really suffering.”

‘We’ refers not only to her family, but also to the 49 other Blue Line workers that are in the same situation as Nancy. In July 2018, the workers won a judgement from the National Employment Council, instructing the company to pay a total of US$159,629.45 worth of outstanding wages (US$3192.59 per person) in monthly instalments of US$435 until the debt is paid off. But Musonza told Equal Times in November that not only have the arrears not been paid, the workers are no longer receiving any salaries at all.

In the five-page judgement seen by Equal Times, the respondent (who was named as the company’s human resources manager, one Mr A B Mukupuka) said the company has not been paying the correct salaries because the company’s creditors have not been paying Blue Line. “Wages are being paid in parts so as to balance the operations and the business,” read the judgement. But the claimants allege that Blue Line – whose clients include Harare County Hospital, Dairibord Zimbabwe and some of the city’s top hotels such as Cresta – has had the money to finance ICC Cricket World Cup qualifier games, while the worker’s committee is kept completely in the dark about the company’s finances.

“It’s a dire situation for the workers of Zimbabwe”

Sadly, this is not an isolated case. Wage theft is a country-wide problem. According a 2016 report published by the research arm of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions’, LEDRIZ (the Labour Economic Research Institute of Zimbabwe), in conjunction with the Solidarity Center, an estimated 80,000 Zimbabwean workers were victims of wage theft in 2015. However, given the ongoing economic crisis in Zimbabwe – last month official annual inflation hit 20.9 per cent; everyday consumer essentials such as bread and cooking oil are in short supply, as is fuel and cash with Zimbabweans having to queue up for hours just to access either – the current number of people suffering from wage theft is thought to be much higher.

“Things have got much worse since we published the study,” says Nyasha Muchichwa, an economist and researcher at LEDRIZ who authored the report. “The majority of the companies that were not paying then are still not paying now. And now we have this whole new group of people who lost their employment through the [2015] Supreme Court judgement which allowed employers to fire people on three months’ notice, and the majority of those people who were dismissed still haven’t got their retrenchment packages,” says Muchichwa. “So you have someone who was not getting a salary who is now also fighting to get their dismissal package. It is mostly a dire situation for the workers of Zimbabwe.”

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Although wage theft occurs in both the private and public sector, most of the 442 companies and institutions identified by LEDRIZ in its report were government agencies or parastatals.

For Japhet Moyo, secretary general of the ZCTU, the blame for the wage theft epidemic “squarely lies with the government”.

Not only has the government of Zanu-PF (both under former president Robert Mugabe and the so-called ‘new dispensation’ of Emmerson Mnangagwa) created the country’s “worst economic crisis in a decade”, but the malpractice of parastatals and government entities also emboldens private enterprises not to pay their workers. Unsurprisingly, wage theft doesn’t seem to extend to the top management in parastatals, state-owned enterprises or the private sector, who continue to pocket huge benefits and salaries without delay. For example, the LEDRIZ report quotes 2014 figures which average the monthly pay of a top public service executive at US$5082 (including benefits). For ordinary workers, their total monthly pay package, with benefits, came in at just US$375.

The government’s culpability in the issue of wage theft even extends to labour inspections, according to Moyo. “The Ministry of Labour is supposed to make sure that entities play according to the book, and the book is that everyone has to be paid a salary once he works,” be it weekly, fortnightly or monthly, he explains. “However, if the government is supposed to do the inspection, but government entities themselves are not able to follow the law, this means the government is directly involved.”

It is not just the workers themselves who are directly affected by wage theft. Muchichwa speaks of the “moral degradation” it causes in families.

“Husbands who are supposed to be the breadwinners of their families are now dependent on their wives. Some of them are even dependent on their children who have had to quit school. Others get involved in illicit activities just to feed their family.”

Nancy tells Equal Times that her husband has been out of work since 2006 and her son and two daughters have all failed to complete their schooling because their parents can’t afford to pay their school fees. “I have a lot of outstanding bills, but I can’t pay them, so everything is at a standstill right now. I have a water bill for 1300 dollars. I am failing to pay it. My husband tries to work in the community. If he gets a dollar, we have bread. If I get paid 15 dollars, we have mealie meal. If my son works in the garden, we have vegetables. This is how we are surviving.”

In one infamous case, hundreds of women related to miners at the Hwange Colliery Company, about 620 kilometres west of Harare, protested for months against unpaid wages. “These workers have gone for five years without being paid their salaries, and yet every day they go to work and they are working,” says Michael Kandukutu, the head of organising at the ZCTU. “Earlier this year about 600 wives, sisters and children of the mine workers staged a picket at Hwange Colliery offices for 98 days, demanding that the mine should pay their husbands’ wages and salaries. Unfortunately, the government was called in, which was not proper. It was a dispute between the workers and the employer, but the workers themselves could not demonstrate or strike because the company has a high level of victimisation. If a worker is to strike, demonstrate or go on go-slow, they will be fired.”

“Who is going to do collective bargaining for them?”

And then there’s the critical issue of the impact of wage theft on trade unions. “When entities don’t pay salaries, it means there are no union dues going to the unions, and no subscriptions come to the ZCTU. So you have to link the administrative challenges that the unions face, that the ZCTU itself faces, by not receiving salaries. You have to link that to the wage theft.”

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As a result of wage theft, trade unions have not only seen the forced reduction of union dues but their constitutional right to freedom of association has also been severely restricted. “Of course, [wage theft] has a very huge impact,” says Moyo. “Remember that for us as an organisation to be very effective we are supposed to do research. And this research need resources. And organisations cannot run programmes – to organise workers, to assist unions to grow, to build their capacities – without resources. There are affiliates who are struggling even to pay rentals. They might close shop and that has affected the freedom of association because workers won’t be able to have organisations which are going to help them. If they don’t have organisations which are going to help them, who is going to do collective bargaining for them?”

Despite its limited resources (the ZCTU has lost three-fourths of its membership since the 1990s), the ZCTU and its affiliates, with support from the international trade union movement, continue to do their best to represent workers that have been affected by wage theft.

Kandukutu says: “The ZCTU, supported by the ITUC, has been doing company-based visits where we talk about wage theft and the remedies that the law provides if a worker is not being paid his or her wage or salary, or other non-salary benefits.” He says it is important for workers to know that “silence will not change anything. When the workers are aggrieved, they should know they can bring these issues to the trade unions, and we will do our best to make sure that the issue is addressed.”

With the help of the US labour NGO the Solidarity Center, in the run-up to the 2018 elections, the ZCTU also held “‘town hall meetings’ or roadshows to try and publicise the incidences of wage theft and ensure that societies and communities come together to try and fight against this scourge.”

Zakeyo Mtimtema, the legal officer at the ZCTU, tells Equal Times that the unions have repeatedly attempted to engage with the government via Zimbabwe’s tripartite negotiating forum, “but there is nothing concrete that is coming out of those discussions.”

The government’s open hostility towards trade unions (several ZCTU leaders, including Moyo, are currently facing 10 years in prison on trumped-up charges of public disorder. The government sees the unions as an obstacle to its ‘Zimbabwe is open for business’ investment plans, rather than a valued social partner) means that “the new government has no respect for its own constitution that guarantees those [labour] rights.”

For example, he says: “The law dealing with going on strike is very bad on the side of the worker. It says you cannot strike on a dispute of rights, you can only strike in a dispute of interests. So, when we talk about a dispute of rights, we are talking about a dispute which involves something that you are entitled to. And now the law says you can’t go on strike! But you are expected to keep on coming to work when you have not been paid. Does that make sense? It doesn’t make sense at all.” And those, like the Blue Line workers, who manage to get their case into a court of law, are obstructed by the legal process in Zimbabwe, “which is very slow,” Mtimtema says. “You go to court, and the matter will take two, three years.”

In terms of taking steps to tackle wage theft, the LEDRIZ report recommends a number of measures such as: ensuring compliance with international labour standards and the Zimbabwe constitution; reviewing and strengthening the Zimbabwe Labour Act to provide “procedures for monitoring of and action on such cases in both the public and private sectors”; and the immediate ratification of international labour conventions on wages. But until such concrete action is taken by the government, thousands of workers like Nancy will continue to suffer. “I know he is going to fire me. If he sees this video he is going to fire me,” she says. “But I am not afraid, if he is going to pay me my money. Because now I am fed up. I am a woman who needs her children to survive but I have worked enough for him. And he doesn’t want to pay me. What can I do?”

This report and the accompanying video have been made possible by funding from Union to Union, an initiative of Swedish trade unions, and with support from the ITUC.

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