The high incidence of strikes and other forms of work stoppages in Zambia today should be a source of great concern among citizens who have the interest of the country at heart. News articles like the following have become regular features in the local news media:
“Teachers on the Copperbelt Province have given government up to Friday this week to conclude negotiations for salary increments and improved conditions of service, failure to which they will not report for work when schools re-open next Monday.”“Teachers in Southern Province have resolved to go on strike when schools re-open for the second term on Monday.”“Public service workers in Choma have resolved to go on strike next Monday, June 1, 2009, to press government to conclude long-awaited salary negotiations with their unions.”“The go-slow by unionized teachers in Choma, which has now entered day three, has spread to rural schools crippling learning activities.”“Teachers in Chibombo district of Central Province have resolved not to resume work after schools opened today for the second term until their needs were addressed.”“Health workers at Kabwe General Hospital and Kabwe Mine Hospital have gone on strike demanding increased allowances.”“Nurses at Solwezi General Hospital have joined their counterparts in some parts of the country to stage a sit in protest to press for improved conditions of service.”
It is rather surprising that all these news articles are about workers who are on government payroll! This reflects very badly on the performance and competence of those who shoulder the responsibility of managing the affairs of our beloved country. The ensuing discussion on work stoppages, however, is a general one.
The long-term success and survival of important institutions in Zambia – and in any other country as a matter of fact – is partly a function of sustained industrial harmony. Both experience and observa tion have taught us that regular industrial strife has partly contributed to the country’s failure to improve the performance of its economy. Strikes and other forms of work stoppages in the country have tended to lead to widespread shortages of essential commodities, huge increases in operational costs, low worker produc tivity, death of patients in health institutions, and so forth.
If Zambian leaders cannot spearhead the preven tion of industrial unrest, therefore, they should not expect the country’s economic and other institutions to operate efficiently.
Causes of Work Stoppages:
In unionized institutions, the strike, as well as the threat of a strike, constitutes the princi pal device by which a labor union can apply pressure on management in labor dis putes. It occurs when workers refuse to work until demanded changes are made in existing condi tions of employment. In the majority of cases, strikes are caused by disputes be tween employers and labor unions over wages, hours of work, and other conditions of service. In some cases, how ever, strikes may also be caused by disputes over the personalities involved in negotiations, or by managem ent’s departure (in its dealings with employ ees and/or their representatives) from the stipulations of an existing collective agree ment.
Strikes may occur with or without the approval of a represen tative union. Unoffi cial strikes – that is, those which are not sanctioned by a representative union – are generally referred to as “wild cat strikes.” Such strikes are often started by workers when, among other reasons, union repre sen tatives are suspected of being sympathet ic with the employer.
The incidence of strikes is sometimes conceived of as evidence of a breakdown in the collective bargaining process, somewhat implying that there can be no strikes if the collective bargaining process is conducted honestly, ingeniously, and with maturity on the part of both the em ployer and employees’ representatives. Strikes may also be conceived of as normal and integral parts of bargaining processes, having functions that contribute to the ultimate resolution of disputes. Thus, a certain frequency of strikes should be expected as an important part of contract bargaining.
The employer, too, has a form of action available that is similar to a strike, that is, a lock-out. In using this pres sure device, the employer closes the work place when a labor dispute exists and with holds wages. As such, lock-outs exert pressure on striking employees to seek prompt settlement of disputes.
Effects of Work Stoppages:
By any measure, work stop pag es are disenchanting and unpleas ant incidents; apart from resulting in grave conse quences for parties engaged in them, they unfairly inconve nience third parties, such as clients, local communi ties, and economic units that have business dealings with organizations involved. Specifical ly, the following are some of the unfavorable effects of work stop pages:
1) Scarcity of Outputs: Every organizational entity creates social and/or economic outputs of one form or another. Work stoppag es are, therefore, likely to cause a scarcity of the outputs of organizations affected.
2) Low Productivity: One of the central issues in the man age ment and administration of any country’s resources is the level of produc tivity in each of its institutions. A country’s produc tivity is said to be high if increases in the outputs of its institutions are greater than increases in inputs used. A country’s level of productivity, there fore, depends greatly on how effec tively and efficiently institutions apply the resourc es at their disposal.
Unfortunately, a country’s institutions are not likely to apply resources optimally unless there is industrial harmo ny, among other things. As such, there should be no disputing the fact that productivity can be re duced grea tly in an economy that is plagued by industrial unrest. This should optimisti cally provide a good reason why each and every societal member needs to guard against engaging in activi ties that are likely to reduce socie ty’s productivity, such as strikes and lock-outs, because such activities can drastical ly reduce the outputs of a country’s institutions and consequently erode society’s quality of life.
3) Weakened BoPs: The financial costs associated with lost man-hours in the event of a work stoppage are often quite significant to affected institutions. For institutions which sell products in foreign mar kets, therefore, labor strife can severely affect their com petitive ness, since their prod ucts will generally be more expensive (due to the added costs emanat ing from work stoppages) than those of competitors from countries which are not beleaguered by labor strife. At the national level, therefore, regular work stoppag es can partly make a countr y’s prod ucts less competi tive in global mar kets and result in reduced foreign exchange earnings. Eventual ly, this can lead to a weakened BoP position for the coun try.
4) Costs among Parties In volved: There are basically no winners in a strike or go-slow. A prolonged work stoppage, for example, can cause hardships for em ployees involved and their kith and kin. Such hardships are particular ly greater when employees and their union use up their savings, thereby evok ing pressure (on employees) from kith and kin to consider returning to work.
Apart from the possibili ty of experiencing hardships, strik ing employees and their kindred are likely to be subjected to embar rass ment and untold misery in the event of a dis missal for taking part in a work stoppage. The 500 workers at Chambishi Copper Smelter who were issued with summary dismissal letters following their two-day riotous behavior in protest against alleged poor conditions of service in March 2008 would perhaps attest to this.
The employer also suffers losses in the event of a work stoppage, whether it takes the form of a strike, a go-slow, or a lock-out. The losses involved may vary, but may include loss of cus tomers to competi tors, lost man-hours, continued incurre nce of fixed costs, and deteri ora tion of premises and ma chinery and equipment result ing from non-use.
5) System Disruption: By any measure, the socio-eco nomic system in modern society is indeed a very com plex one. Among other things, it consists of social and eco nomic institutions that are very much dependent on each other in numerous ways. As such, a work stoppage in one institu tion is likely to trigger off problems in other institu tions. Among the obvious publics that are likely to be concerned and/or affected when an organiza tion is expe riencing a work stoppage are consum ers and businesses which have regular dealings with the organiza tion. The government, too, can natural ly get concerned when a work stoppage poses a threat to indus trial harmony and the well-being of citizens.
Let me now suggest ways in which the Zambian government can contribute to the attainment of sustained industrial harmony. Also, keen and concerted in volvement by both employers and labor unions in the attainment of protracted industrial harmo ny to complement the governmental effort is underscored thereafter.
Role of the Government:
The Zambian gov ernment needs to embark on programs designed to educate the masses about the perilous impacts of work stoppages on various segments of soci ety. Such programs can be featured periodically through newspa pers, the radio, and television. Another feasible step the government can take is to enact strong legislation which compels parties in a collective bargaining situation to consider mediation and/or arbitra tion in the event of a breakdown or deadlock in contract negotiations.
Sugges tively, such legisla tion should make compulsory arbitration as the final and terminal step in the settlement of all labor dis putes.
Be sides, it is important for the government to avoid taking a stance that is likely to be construed as being unfair to any one party in a bargai ning situation. For example, it would be unfair for a government to castigate or indict workers for going on strike without calling upon employers to take their share of the blame; after all, it takes two to make a fight!
One may also do well to implore the Zambian government to pursue the following in order to improve the welfare of unionized government employees and mitigate the incidence of work stoppages:
(a) Provision for car-ownership and home-ownership schemes, and adequate upward adjustments in the salaries and allowances of personnel on government payroll;
(b) Provision of free life-saving healthcare to all Zambians that is respectful, that recognizes personal dignity, and that adequately provides for personal privacy;
(c) Provision of free formal education, abolition of examination fees and Grade 7 and Grade 9 elimination examinations, provision of scholarships for high-school graduates who obtain a Division 1 and low-interest loans for other high-school graduates and working Zambian men and women wishing to pursue further studies in classroom-based or correspondence-based study programs offered within Zambia; and
(d) Improvement in Zambia’s food security through government-financed irrigation dams and canals, cattle re-stocking and disease control, free seeds and fertilizer for 2 years, a seed and fertilizer subsidy at 50% after 2 years, zero value-added tax on agricultural inputs and raw food, promotion of food canning, and promotion of agricultural schemes by municipalities, the civil police, the prison service, the defence forces, and educational and training institutions.
The government can meet these demands by performing existing and planned government functions with a smaller number of Cabinet Ministers, abolition of the positions of Deputy Minister and District Commissioner, having provinces that would be administered by elected Provincial Governors and Secretaries rather than appointed Provincial Ministers and Provincial Permanent Secretaries, reduction in the number of Zambia’s foreign embassies by having clusters of countries to be served by single embassies, as well as initiating restrictions on seminars and leaders’ trips to foreign countries.
It is hard to understand why the MMD government seems to be so obsessed with maintaining a highly bloated government – a government that serves itself instead of serving the people, to use the words of a Kitwe-based prominent Zambian.
It is sad, really sad, that the MMD government does not see anything wrong with our country’s over-dependence on loans and donor funding to provide for public health and sanitation, education and training, agriculture and food security, public infrastructure, and other basic needs.
There is a need for government leaders to realize that donor countries, like Zambia, do not have unlimited resources. They have to make do with scarce resources by going through public expenditures line by line, program by program, agency by agency, department by department, and ministry by ministry in order to eliminate unnecessary application of public funds.
We need to start doing the same in order to wean our country from its current addiction to loans, its over-dependence on donor funding, as well as attain economic independence and sustained socio-economic development mostly with our own local resources.
There is also a need for the government to adhere to the dictates of good governance, which entails the following:
(a) Availability of a mechanism for ensuring that individuals are directly and liable for the outcomes of their decisions and actions, and the appropriation of resources assigned to them;
(b) Public access to information about the state, its decision-making mechanisms, and its current and planned projects and programs – except for state secrets and matters relating to public officials’ right to privacy;
(c) The existence of non-discriminatory laws and law enforcement organs of the government that are efficient, impartial, independent, and legitimate;
(d) Availability of channels and mechanisms through which the citizenry and non-governmental institutions can have an influence on the actions of public officials, such as the procurement of hearses and mobile clinics; and
(e) Fostering the development of a free press to facilitate the exposure of unscrupulous activities in institutional settings, such as the K10 billion theft at the Ministry of Health.
Role of the Employer:
In their deal ings with workers and labor unions, employ ers need to be wary of decisions, actions and programs that are likely to evoke undesirable incidents like strikes and go-slows. And during collective bargain ing, employ ers should always insist on active and genuine dialogue. Further, they need to avoid undue delays when exploring the feasibility of meeting union demands.
Perhaps a more prudent and tactical approach for an employer-organization should be to cater, in collaboration with a repre se ntative union, for the wel fare of workers without hav ing to wait for the union to table workers’ demands. After all, employers generally know what constitutes a livable wage or salary under any given eco nomic conditions. A voluntary posture toward the welfare of employees, although it can very easily undermine emplo yees’ rationale for union represen tation in an organization, can greatly mitigate the incidence of labor strife.
It is also important for employers to guard against taking advan tage of warnings that may be sounded by gov ernment leaders that stern measures would be taken against workers who uncompromi singly resort to strike action as a means of getting their demands met. They should not use such warnings to fortify their posi tions in bargaining even when worke rs’ demands are justi fied.
In general, employer-organizations need to consider labor unions more as partners in achieving organizational suc cess and survival rather than as their formida ble enemy.
Role of the Union:
A labor union is a voluntary associa tion of employ ees that may act as a col lective bargaining agent for its members when so elected, and which is main ly con cerned about compelling management to adopt fair employment prac tic es on such mat ters as wages, hours of work, fringe benefits, retirement benefits, discipline, promo tions, transfers, terminations, and other conditions of em ployment.
It may also be concerned about many other matters; in Zambia, for example, the funda mental concerns or objectives of the labor movem ent in clude the follow ing: to work for the strengthening of the country and its political and economic independence, to encourage workers to educate them selves and overcome illiteracy, to develop the conscious ness of workers regarding the need for high morals and exemplary con duct, to fight against tribalism and racism, and to foster and maintain friendly relations with all progressive labor unions world wide.
Labor unions, therefore, serve important functions. Without such unions, most employees today would have probably been subjected to unfair condi tions of employ ment. However, this does not imply that employers cannot adopt fair employment practices in the absence of labor unions; given the necessary financial and material resourc es, most employers are likely to make a determined effort to improve the social and economic welfare of their em ployees without any exter nal pressures.
The pres ence of organized labor in an organization al setting creates two institutions within one organization between which employees have to divide their alle giance. Since the existence and success of any labor union general ly depends on convinc ing its members – at least by implica tion – that management is their arch enemy, the rank and file in unionized organiza tions natu rally tend to identify them selves more with the goals and aspirations of their repre sentative unions. Needless to say, this tends to make unionized workers less concerned about the need for their em ployers to attain protracted growth and greater effi ciency.
There is no doubt that this kind of attitude among work ers can culminate in organizational failure and conse quently result in loss of employment. Of necessity, there fore, labor unions need to educate their members about the importance of striving for greater levels of perfor mance so that their employer-organizations can prosper and conse quently be in a better position to provide both attrac tive remuneration and protracted employment.
Each and every employee needs to be aware of the fact that if they alienate themselves from the goals and aspira tions of their employers and contribute less than their capacities, they would be jeopardizing their long-term employment and incomes, because no employer can possibly continue to maintain workers who are unproductive.
In other words, if workers are grossly irresponsible and ineffi cient, an employer cannot resist the temptation of stream lining the workforce by laying off some of them. Besides, an employer may contemplate halting business operations due to irresponsible and unproductive activities on the part of workers and/or their representa tive union. All these possible actions which may be taken by an employer can obviously result in loss of both income and employment on the part of workers.
Perhaps it is also impor tant to remind union leaders to avoid adopting an antago nistic stance in bargaining situa tions even when an em ployer is willing to cooper ate in seeking mutually beneficial solutions to problems facing workers and the employer. Moreover, it is important for workers and their representa tive unions to avoid making wild and unrealistic demands – demands which cannot be justified in terms of workers’ level of contribu tion to the overall efficiency and effec tiveness of their employer-organization, the employer’s financial capability to meet workers’ de mands, and so forth.
Further, labor unions need to guard against the tempta tion of seeking elev enth-hour settlements even when issues and problems at hand are too complex for manage ment to promptly study and eventu ally make a rational decision in fulfilling workers’ demands.
In passing, it is perhaps important to note that trade unionism is not something that can be wished away by employers or the government, because it is one of the widely recognized and guaranteed rights of members of society. Like the weather, therefore, it is here to stay!
The 1996 Zambian constitution, for example, provides for the following in Article 21 (1): Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of assembly and association, that is to say, his right to assemble freely and associate with other persons and in particular to form or belong to any political party, trade union or other association for the protection of his interests.”
The African Union’s African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights provides for the following in Article 10 (1): “Every individual shall have the right to free association provided that he abides by the law.”
The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, too, has a similar proviso in Article 20 (1): “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”
Henry Kyambalesa (Guest Blogger)
Agenda for Change