Minister Gumbo’s comments on NRZ workers reveal irresponsibility and callousness

It was more than shocking - in fact, it was dumbfounding - to hear the minister of transport Joram Gumbo, last night on VOA Studio 7, say that the state-run National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) employees - who are owed millions of dollars in unpaid salaries - did not deserve to be paid.

This is a Zimbabwe government minister making such irresponsible and callous statements about workers who he is supposed to be in charge of, and therefore, protecting.

However, typical of this government, he has turned his back on the people and views them as mere slaves, who have no rights at all.

Is it then any wonder that Zimbabwe is on the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conference agenda – together with eight other African countries – for violating workers rights?

How can the minister of transport say that workers under his portfolio did not deserve to be paid for the work they had done?

And his reason being that the state-owned NRZ was no longer securing any business from its erstwhile clients – due to the prevailing lethargic economic situation in the country – and as such, was not making any money.

This shows that Gumbo is either being disingenious, or is simply arrogant, uncaring, and irresponsible.

To begin with, the Zimbabwe Constitution – which he is supposed to protect – in Section 65(1), guarantees that, ‘every person has the right to fair and safe labour practices and standards and to be paid a fair and reasonable wage’.

At no point in this clause does it say something as: ‘within the limits of the resources available to them’ – as such, Section 65(1) is unqualified, and should be taken as it is.

Therefore, NRZ is bound by the Constitution – the supreme law of the land – to pay its workers, without fail, what it owes them.

Thus, instead of Gumbo defending his government-owned NRZ – when it is clearly breaching the Constitution – he would be better advised to ensure that it secures the finances to pay its disgruntled workers every cent of what it owes them.

Nevertheless, this behaviour by the government, although grossly vile, is not new, as it has lately been favouring companies above of workers – thereby, passing some grotesque anti-worker laws.

These workers – who toiled and sweated for NRZ for years – are only demanding what they worked for, and nothing more.

They at least deserve that.

Based on documents provided to the Zimbabwe Network for Social Justice (ZimJustice) by NRZ workers, some of them are owed as much as US$22 000 in overdue unpaid salaries, unbanked part of salaries, liabilities, bonuses, and leave days.

Another worker, who was employed by the NRZ for 18 years, and was retired due to a back injury sustained at work, was awarded a lump sum payment of only US$200, and currently receiving only US$68 per month.

Can such treatment of workers ever be excused?

How are these workers supposed to sustain themselves and their families, especially under such a harsh economic climate – which the government, under which this same minister serves, presided over?

On top of that, the NRZ is no longer making money due to the government’s own mismanagement of the company and mishandling of the economy, so should the workers be the ones to bear the brunt?

Should it not be the government – which both mismanaged the company, and also oversaw the demise of the country’s economy – be the one to take full responsibility for these workers’ plight?

Instead, what we are witnessing is downright dereliction of duty.

The minister suggested that the government’s solution was to inivite investors to take over the company.

As every Zimbabwean well knows, that is not much of a solution, as witnessed by the gross failures of such attempts at other state-owned companies, such as the Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Company (Ziscosteel).

This momumental failure – due to suspected government corruption – will always serve as a reminder never to trust such schemes.

After much funfair in 2010 – that was attended by both the president and then prime minister – thereby, raising the hopes of the Ziscosteel community that an investor had been finally secured, yet till today, nothing has materialised.

Therefore, it would be foolhardy for NRZ workers to expect anything different.

If they seriously want their money, they need to exert even more pressure on both the company and its major shareholder – the government.

They should show them that they are not begging for any favours, but demanding what is righfully theirs.

The time for sweetness is long gone.

When one is owed US$22 000 – that he or she toiled for – yet, can not even afford to feed one’s family and send one’s children to school – then it is no longer time to be nice.

NRZ workers have to show that they have teeth, and they are ready to use them.

They can no longer afford to have the company and its major shareholder ride roughshod over them.

To make matters worse, they have a minister who really does not care at all about them, and is not empathetic to their plight – but would rather callously announce on radio that these workers did not deserve to be paid.

The workers’ representative on the same radio programme said they were prepared to accept part payments of their salaries, but all he got, instead, was a slap in the face.

This is the kind of arrogant attitude from the government that the oppressed and unjustly treated should unequivocally reject.

If the oppressed, especially workers, allow such treatment to prevail, they will forever be viewed with contempt by the powers-that-be.

If workers continue sucking up to employers – allowing themselves to be taken for a ride through useless and endless negotiations – then they will only have themselves to blame.

Workers should use all legal avenues available to them to demand their rights, including litigation, peaceful but crippling demonstrations, amongst a whole plethora of options.

Without such decisive action, workers should never dream of receiving what is due to them – as they have already witnessed that playing ‘Mr Nice Guy’ with a cruel and vicious employer, is akin to trying to befriend a wild Siberian tiger.

° Tendai Ruben Mbofana is Programmes Director at the Zimbabwe Network for Social Justice (ZimJustice). Please call/WhatsApp: +263782283975, or email: [email protected]com. Please ‘Like’ the ZimJustice page on Facebook for updates.

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