Demands for “hard honest work” and “national interest” in the absence of workers’ dignity is simply savage slavery!

During the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the US (United States of America) experienced arguably the worst economic crisis of its 246 year history - resulting to the indescribable impoverishment and suffering of its citizenry.

Tendai Ruben Mbofana

 

As the country struggled to overcome these immense challenges – and, as a matter of national interest to make America great again – workers, in the midst of high unemployment, were required to put in the extra effort (hard work) and commitment, as a patriotic duty to ensure the resurrection of their country.

In San Francisco (Los Angeles), for instance, as the hub of commerce and trade with the international community – its harbors were the nerve centre of any envisioned economic recovery.

Thus, dock workers, and other offshoremen, were demanded to work extra hard, and go the extra mile in the numerous ports across the West Coast – with most being overworked, yet being poorly remunerated and conditions of service well below par.

As a matter fact, these workers were treated no better than slaves – the only difference being that, these were, at least, paid something, and had “voluntarily” applied for the jobs, albeit under duress from insufferable economic difficulties.

In spite of the US truly in the clutches of an economic meltdown – thereby, requiring a committed hard working population, dedicated to reviving their country, as matter of national interest – there was no way such sub-standard inhumane treatment was to be acceptable, merely as an act of patriotism.

Therefore, on May 9, 1934 over 32,000 dockworkers, who had had enough and were fed-up, decided to embark on a crippling strike action, which brought to a standstill major ports, and by extension, the entire country’s economy – as these ill-treated workers faced off with ship owners for better working conditions, and the restoration of their dignity.

Although at first, ship owners ignored their employees’ justifiable demands – rather opting to dismiss this as a flash in the pan nonentity, with even the country’s law enforcement being roped in to crush the united industrial job action, possibly regarded as anti-economic growth and anti-national interest – eventually, as the pressure was heightened, the employers were left with no other choice than to capitulate, and yield to the demands.

In fact, this strike was such a resounding success that it was heralded as the birth of genuine union labour activism in the US – with president Franklin D. Roosevelt even recognizing this “new normal” of the respect and recognition of the fundamental inalienable rights of all workers.

Indeed, the country was buried under innumerable economic challenges.

Admittedly, as a matter of national interest, there was need for “all hands on deck”, in an united patriotic sense of “honest hard work”, so as to revive the country’s fortunes.

However, this could never be a justification for oppressing and unjustly treating workers – under the pretext of economic hardships bedevilling the nation.

Workers are not, as should never be, the sacrificial lambs of any country – who are burnt on the alter of expediency, in order to grow the economy, whilst those in power enriching themselves in the process, with scant regard of the misery and suffering of the masses.

Zimbabwe is no different.

It is undeniable that the country has been enduring untold and painful economic problems for the better part of the past two decades – nonetheless, it is extremely disingenuous for the ruling elite to parade such mantra as “hard honest work”, “national interest”, and “patriotism” (arguably the most abused and misused words in the country’s vocabulary) to defend and explain the deplorable and disgraceful treatment of our workers.

It becomes even more laughable and shameless when both the government (the biggest employer in Zimbabwe), and the private sector, declare huge budget surpluses and incredible profits – yet, unwilling to do right with the people they employ to make their economic growth and achievement real.

Is the country’s leadership not lacking energy in always reminding the nation of the ZW$9.8 billion budget surplus in 2021, or US$10 billion in export earnings, or ZW$161 billion in revenue collection in the fourth quarter of 2021 (with ZW$117 billion third quarter, and ZW$108 billion second quarter)?

Are we currently not being told of the billion-dollar profits being achieved by several companies in Zimbabwe – from mobile network operators, food and beverages outlets, manufacturers, farmers, mining entities, financial institutions, amongst a whole host?

Yet, how much are they paying their workers?

Is the average government teacher not being paid a paltry ZW$30,000 – in a country whereby, the April 2022 food poverty datum line (FPL) shot up to a shocking ZW$8,366, and total consumption poverty line at ZW$11,363 for only one person?

Their employer, never shies bragging over the other “benefits”, such as ZW$20,000 for teachers’ children school fees – leaving most Zimbabweans wondering exactly which educational institutions these children are expected to attend, when some of the cheapest and of the lowest standards are charging over ZW$10,000 per term, with the most expensive now in the millions.

As for those working in the private sector, the story is no better – in a country whereby, over 76% of the population live under the poverty datum line, and nearly 50% in extreme poverty earning less than US$1.90 per day.

If we are to look at the Zimbabwe ruling elite, as well as company directors and senior executives – are we to spot the same poverty and squalor as their workers – or, are they living the lifestyle of the rich and famous, only comparable to what Richard Leech used to show us on his popular television program?

Therefore, it becomes severely troubling and despicable when we hear the country’s leadership repeat the drivel of “hard honest work”, “national interest”, and “patriotism” as some acceptable reason for our oppressed and unjustly-treated workers to continue offering their services without question, even under the most horrendous and scandalous conditions, not fit for any living human being.

As much as we all want to see our country revive from the two decade economic malaise, and need to fulfill our professional obligations and commitments – but, nothing can ever override the necessity for the observance and respect of the supreme law of the land, the Constitution, which guarantees labor rights, under section 65.

These inalienable rights include, fair and safe labor practices and standards, and to be paid a fair and reasonable wage.

Workers also have the right to form and join unions and employee organizations of their choice, and to participate in the lawful activities of those unions and organizations – which include, in exercising the right to participate in collective job action, such as strikes, sit ins, withdrawal of their labor, and to take other similar concerted action.

With such tools assured by the country’s laws, it is now entirely up to workers themselves to determine their own future, and how they would want to be treated.

They can choose to be held at ransom by a government or private sector that always resorts to threats and intimidation, as a means to cower their workers – or, as happened with the American dockworkers of 1934, decide to take the bull by its horns, and say enough is enough.

If our workers continue being disjointed in their approach, they have no one else to blame should their employers always manage to swindle them the fruits of their hardwork and sweat – by brazen manipulation and buying of labor leaders.

Those who desire real results need to understand that no freedom or rights are ever given – but, are taken.

Even our country’s nationalist movements were clever enough to understand that endless negotiations with the oppressor would take them nowhere – but, only through tangible revolutionary action on the ground, with the objective of forcing serious negotiations, would results be forthcoming.

Anything less is a meaningless pursuit in futility – as workers will be sitting around the table with their employers for decades to come, without anything to show for it, but unfulfilled promises and endless tears.

Now is the time for workers to stand up for their rights, without fear or quivering or flinching – if truly they want their dignity restored.

© Tendai Ruben Mbofana is a social justice activist, writer, researcher, and social commentator. Please feel free to contact him on WhatsApp/Call: +263715667700 / +263782283975, or Calls Only: +263788897936 / +263733399640, or email: [email protected]

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