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2013 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights : Countries at Risk - Zimbabwe

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 6 June 2013
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2013 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights : Countries at Risk - Zimbabwe, 6 June 2013, available at: [accessed 23 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

To maintain his tight grip on power, Robert Mugabe has not hesitated to attack the political opposition and critical opinions through the security forces and restrictive laws. The trade union movement is the strongest voice against irresponsible and autocratic policies. This comes at a high cost: trade unions are harassed by police and denied registration; activities cannot be carried out without fear; dues are not remitted; legitimate strike action is restricted; and there are serious limitations on collective bargaining.


The Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) led by Mugabe refused to admit defeat when on 29 March 2008 it lost elections to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Election results were not published for five weeks, pushing the country into political and economic instability until the conclusion of the Global Political Agreement (GPA). The coalition government subsequently formed did not, however, reflect the will of the population expressed at the ballot box. The Southern African Development Community's (SADC) failure to emerge collectively as a credible mediator was seen as one the major causes.

A constitutional referendum and general elections are on the political agenda for 2013. The constitutional referendum took place on 16 March 2013. Then, 94.2 per cent of the voters supported the new constitution which introduces improvements with respect to fundamental civil rights. The Zimbabwe Election Support Network considered the referendum as peaceful which led the European Union (EU) to ease targeted measures it had adopted against 81 officials and 8 companies – not including Mugabe and 10 of his associates. The fact that the draft was only released three weeks prior to the referendum and was not translated into local languages prevented broad and informed consultation. General elections are expected to take place in July 2013. Trade unions and civil society actors are actively promoting free and fair elections but are vulnerable to increased attacks before and after the elections.


Political instability also had an adverse impact on the economy. Zimbabwe experienced relative economic stabilisation after the establishment of the "inclusive government" in 2009. While Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declined by 17.8 per cent in 2008, 9.38 per cent growth was recorded in 2011 mainly driven by sectors such as agriculture, mining, manufacturing and transport. Foreign direct investment (FDI) has been increasing constantly and now accounts for 4.01 per cent of the GDP.

But, these improvements have not translated into better jobs. An estimated 84 per cent of the working population (4.6 million) work in informal employment according to a Labour Force Survey carried out in 2011. Furthermore, 52 per cent of the labour force work less than 40 hours a week and is thus under-employed. Minimum wages are set well below the poverty line (US$500) and have not been adjusted since 2009. Domestic workers have the lowest minimum wage rate (30 USD/month).

Hence, it is not surprising that 39.1 per cent of the population live in multidimensional poverty. Zimbabwe ranks 172 out of 186 countries in the human development index, which assesses development on a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living. While all other countries improved their human development status, Zimbabwe is one of the two countries which had a lower human development status in 2012 than in 1990.


The initial support given to the establishment of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) in 1981 immediately ceased when the union started to criticise the government on socio-economic issues such as the de-regularisation of the labour market and the introduction of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) in 1991. Today, trade unions are subject to extensive restrictions imposed by law and government policy.

Political Harassment of Trade Unions and Civil Society

Civil liberties are recognised in principle in the Constitution of Zimbabwe and in the GPA which also refers to freedom of assembly and association. However, these rights are severely compromised by the Public Order and Security Act of 2002 (POSA) and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act of 2006 under which acts and opinions considered detrimental to the public order or interest are punishable by up to five years imprisonment. Police and security forces have extensively used these laws to repress basic civil liberties and trade union rights. United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteurs have expressed serious alarm regarding the increase in attacks against civil society actors, the arrests and use of force against peaceful protesters by the police.

The communications office of MDC leader Tsvangirai was raided by police on 17 March 2013. Human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetra, who intervened during the raid, was arrested for obstructing justice and only released on bail on 25 March after an outcry from civil society. On 19 February, police announced that it was authorised to seize radios and raid offices of the independent election group Crisis Coalition in search of alleged subversive materials.

ZCTU members are particularly vulnerable to police violence as public perception links them to the MDC, even though it has been repeatedly made clear that while the ZCTU facilitated the formation of the MDC in 1999, the operations and goals of the union are independent.

Restrictions on the Establishment of Trade Unions

While the Labour Act (LA) gives workers the right to establish unions, the Registrar has absolute discretion over registering unions after a 30-day consultation period with all "interested" parties (Article 42). The Minister of Public Service is responsible for the registration of public service workers and has similar excessive discretionary powers. The Zimbabwe Metal Energy and Allied Workers' Union (ZMEAWU) have been waiting a for registration certificate from the public authorities for 7 years. The unions, namely Zimbabwe Ferrow Alloys Workers Union, Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Workers Union, Automotive and Allied Workers Union and Electronics Communication and Allied Workers Union merged in 2007 to form ZMEAWU. The union is also representing 3,000 employees at Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Company now partly owned by New Zimbabwe Steel and the Zimbabwean government.

Police Attend and Interfere in Union Activities and Elections

Police and state intelligence services regularly attend and spy on union activities. The law permits public authorities to annul union elections if they were not considered to have been "properly" conducted or if the results are not considered to be adequately representative of workers' views. In addition, public authorities may investigate unions without prior notice and question any person on the premises if the union is suspected of not using funds for the interests of its members. These regulations give unrestricted powers to public authorities who do not shy away from abusing them in order to intimidate and compromise trade union activities. For example, police prohibited the celebration of International Human Rights Day on 10 December 2012. On 18 January 2013, two police officers namely constable Torongo and constable Singo from Police Intelligence services (Harare Police Central) came to the ZCTU head office demanding to be part of a meeting that was to be held at ZCTU. Ironically, the ZCTU had no such meeting.

Employers do not Remit Union Dues

The law prescribes that unions and employers may agree on the collection and transfer of union dues – employers violating such agreements may be liable to a fine or imprisonment of up to two years. However, the Minister has the right to interfere with any arrangement if s/he considers this to be in the interest of the workers. Non-remittance of union dues has become a widespread practice in Zimbabwe and has brought unions into financial difficulties in terms of their activities and their existence. Between February and June 2009 the ZCTU was not able to receive remittances as workers were paid in allowances and in-kind during that period. The Zimbabwe Railways Workers Union, Railway Artisan's Union, Railway Association of Engineman and Railways Association of Yard operating Staff have not received union dues for over two years. Manufacturers Bata Shoe Company, Superior Footwear and Conte Shoes are also not remitting subscriptions to the Zimbabwe Leather Shoe and Allied Workers Union. The National Engineering Workers Union is owed an estimated US$80,000 by more than 20 companies. Companies in the security sector are also notoriously refusing to either deduct union dues or to remit them to unions.

Excessive Limitations on the Right to Strike

Broad categories of workers are excluded from the right to strike: public sector workers; workers in essential services including veterinary services; workers at the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority; health services; and transport and communication services. Strikes are only permitted with respect to interest disputes but not rights disputes. These restrictions greatly limit the possibility of calling a legal strike. Participation in a legitimate but illegal strike can lead to up to five years imprisonment. Police regularly interfere to end strikes. For example, the mining company Renco Mine in Masvingo called the police to end a legitimate and peaceful strike embarked on by its employees in February 2013 concerning non-payment of wages over a 7-month period.


Collective bargaining takes place at enterprise level and industry level. At enterprise level, work councils negotiate collective agreements which become binding after they are approved by 50 per cent of the workers in the bargaining unit. Industry level bargaining takes place within the framework of the National Employment Councils (NEC). In case of conflict between agreements concluded at different levels the provisions which are more favourable to the worker apply. The Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare has claimed that there are 45 NECs. Unions representing at least 50 per cent of the workers can bargain with the authorisation of the Minister. Members of the ZCTU have stated that employers often do not recognise their affiliates within the NECs.

Employers Refuse to Bargain in Good Faith

Refusal to bargain in good faith is considered as an unfair labour practice and is prohibited by law (Art.8 (c) LA). Yet, employers frequently abuse institutional weaknesses by creating a deadlock in the bargaining process. This means that the dispute is referred to arbitration and then to court and both fail to come to a decision in a reasonable timeframe, rendering the whole process futile. Unions, especially agricultural workers, have also reported verbal and physical attacks by employers during negotiations. The Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Employers Association has not concluded a collective agreement with the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Workers' Unions since 2007. An arbitral award of 2010 in favour of the employees was ignored by the employers. The NEC for the manufacturing industry has become almost dysfunctional because several companies such as Quest Manufacturing and AVM Africa have withdrawn from negotiations.

Interference in Collective Agreements

Collective agreements are legally binding but have to be amended at the request of the Minister if s/he believes it is "unreasonable or unfair." This decision should be left to the legitimate representatives in the negotiations. Recently, public authorities imposed a fee of 1,000 USD for the registration of collective agreements which is excessive and dissuasive. Furthermore, employers often disrespect collective agreements and court decisions. For example, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority has refused to comply with the wage increases awarded by arbitration. The company has unilaterally changed provisions of valid collective agreements with regard to pension contributions.


Today the ZCTU represents more than 250,000 workers in a country where the estimated size of the formalised workforce is 606,000. The union does not only protect the rights of its members but also of other vulnerable workers. Since 2002, the ZCTU has carried out various initiatives in order to organise workers in the informal economy, in particular by assisting them to establish a national association for the informal economy – the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Association. Organising youth and women, who constitute 52 per cent of the population and are often excluded from leadership positions, is one of the key targets. The ZCTU propose pro-poor and socially inclusive socio-economic strategy to improve the welfare of all citizens and the recovery of the economy. The union movement plays an active role in promoting free and fair elections through voter education and awareness raising campaigns.

However, increased attacks on civil society and in particular on trade unions have created an environment of fear which deters workers who want to join unions or engage in trade union activities. Between 2009 and 2010 almost 10,000 members left the ZCTU. Unfortunately it is not only the security forces which are responsible for the weakening of trade unions. Employers abuse the weaknesses in law and institutions and refuse to bargain with unions. This has a serious impact on the capacity of unions to represent their members in negotiations and to achieve fair agreements. The non-remittance of union dues by employers makes it impossible for the union movement to sustain itself financially. Tripartite social dialogue advocated by the International Labour Organization (ILO) has so far only served as window dressing and there have been no real changes in law and policy. In fact, there is no meaningful consultation on social and economic policies which could improve the situation. In 2013, ZCTU members run a serious risk of being targeted by security forces in the run up to elections.

What needs to happen in 2013?

  • The recommendations of the ILO Commission of Inquiry must be implemented in a timely and effective manner.

  • Zimbabwe must accept international observers to monitor the entire electoral process.

  • Employers must remit union dues.

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