Zimbabwe informal workers cry foul over new lockdown restrictions

Hawkers’ stalls in Harare, Zimbabwe, lie deserted following the lockdown of the economy in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Archive photo by EFE-EPA/Aaron Ufumeli

Informal economy workers in Zimbabwe say the government imposed the lockdown without making sure they would have means to survive.

Informal economy workers in Zimbabwe have cried foul over new lockdown restrictions announced by President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Under the National Lockdown Amendment regulations gazetted Tuesday, which also imposed a country-wide dusk to dawn curfew, only registered informal sector players will be allowed to operate.

But informal workers who spoke to Elitsha in different interviews said the measures hurt the poor most as they and have no safety net to cushion them. They said government should have first provided them with basic requirements for the lockdown as they could not sit at home and watch their families die of hunger. They vowed to defy the new regulations if they were not offered alternative ways of survival.

“We are obviously not happy with these oppressive measures. If we stay home, how will we feed our families and meet other obligations? So if the government tells me to stay at home, I will stay; but again if hunger tells me to go out and hustle, I will go out because these are two powerful authorities,” says Edward Jacob, a vendor in Harare. Jacob said the government should consider that most informal workers were failing to register because of the high, unaffordable fees.

Another informal worker, Abel Mwariwangu, who is also the director of the Survival Vendors Union of Zimbabwe, said only a few operators were registered along partisan lines, adding that the registration requirements are too stringent. “Besides, the registration process was not fair as those who do not support the ruling Zanu PF party failed to register and were not allocated the few available spaces,” he said.

At the beginning of the lockdown in March, the government, through the Harare City Council, demolished all roadside market stalls in and around the city and ordered traders to first register with the authorities before being allowed to operate again. The authorities, however, have failed to register most of the vendors and have also not created enough working spaces for them, leaving them with no option but to operate from undesignated places.

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Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA), an umbrella body of informal workers organisations in the country, said that while it recognised the need to have measures in place to curtail the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the tightened restrictions weighed heavily against informal traders.

ZCIEA secretary general, Wisborn Malaya, said that it is vulnerable members of society, eking out a living in the informal sector, that bear the brunt of the restrictions on street trade. “The informal workers were last time given strict registration conditions for them to trade of which only a few could be met,” he said.

He said the average USD60 registration fee demanded by the authorities is not affordable. The situation for informal traders is worsened by the fact that only a few can receive government grants to cushion them from the effects of the lockdown.

“Now these new measures have again excluded the majority poor who live from hand to mouth. This may force informal traders to start operating illegally, not because they want to but as a survival strategy. This will pose greater danger to the informal economy workers as they will be involved in cat and mouse battles with authorities,” he added.

Malaya urged the government to seriously consider giving as many informal workers as possible food aid so they can be able to stay home and be safe, while encouraging those informal workers who have been allowed to operate to exercise extreme caution and adhere to the regulations.

The Survival Vendors Union of Zimbabwe (SVUZ) echoed the same sentiments, adding that government should appreciate the important role informal workers were playing to keep the country’s economy alive.
“As SVUZ we are not happy. The situation is bad for our members who were surviving on trading. Just imagine the number of malls that were created and the number of vendors in the country,” said the union’s director, Mwariwangu.

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He said government was not being sincere and should step up its game to ensure all who needed working space were accommodated regardless of political affiliations.

Small to Medium Enterprises Development Minister, Sithembiso Nyoni, while conceding that government was struggling to make the space required for the thousands of informal traders in the country, insisted that the majority had heeded government’s calls for them to register their operations.

“Most traders have registered. The only challenge is workspace which we are aggressively working on with our stakeholders. We are negotiating with local authorities,” Nyoni said.

In 2005, more than 700,000 informal workers lost their livelihoods and were displaced from their homes after the Zimbabwe government carried out an exercise dubbed Operation Murambatsvina, or Operation Restore Order, where it destroyed market stalls and slums in high density suburbs in urban areas under the guise of clearing illegal housing and commercial structures in an effort to contain infectious diseases

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