Trade Unions and Democracy in Zambia

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Amidst the recent democratic crisis following the announcement that the Patriotic Front government intends to ‘deregister’ the main opposition party (the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy) few commentators have picked-up on the growing tension between new president Michael Sata and Zambia’s trade unions. Here, Timothy Wild considers the president’s recent comments, and warns him against making an enemy of some of the country’s most influential organizations. 

Recently, President Michael Sata commented on the potential of public sector strikes in Zambia by members of the country’s civil service stemming from their rejection of the proposed salary increase. Mr. Sata hinted that the specter of this hereto latent industrial action was largely the work of members of the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) aligned with the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), and was politically motivated in light of the Patriotic Front’s (PF) recent presidential and legislative victories.

Without going into the specifics of the internal cleavages within the Zambian labour movement, there could be a grain of truth in Mr. Sata’s comments; in a country with so few jobs in the formal sector of the economy, positions with the civil service – and public sector unions – could be seen as being lucrative politically gifted sinecures. The MMD was in power, after all, for twenty years and there might be undertones of self-preservation within organized labour. There may indeed be an element of “sabotage” – to use Mr. Sata’s word – informing these still moot labour actions. Perhaps there are partisan forces at work at some level.

However, the labour movement has always had (and rightly so) a political dimension and a broader socio-political role.  It is important to remember the part that organized labour played in the various struggles that resulted in the largely peaceful birth of Zambia and also in the country’s movement from a one-party to a multi-party state. As noted by Miles Larmer, for example, mineworkers played a crucial part in both the development of class-consciousness but also in the necessary disposition to act on the imperatives arising from that collective consciousness. Following from this, the labour movement appropriated for themselves a significant place in both organizing workers generally and in the creation of the MMD. And, more recently, as pointed out by Sishuwa Sishuwa, elements of labour (including mineworkers) threw their support behind the PF itself.

So, organized labour has been a significant factor in progressive social, political, cultural and constitutional change in Zambia.  Following from this then, one can readily understand President Sata’s concerns regarding the potential power of organized labour, particularly if that transformative potential is contextualized as being driven by partisan political rather than economic (even workplace) considerations. However, that being recognized, it is also important for the ongoing development of Zambia’s democracy that industrial legality be respected, protected and enhanced.
Certainly, it is within the President’s power to determine what services are “essential services” and not subject to the conventional dictates and processes of industrial negotiations.  Then there is the role of private sector unions and the response to foreign investment.  But those exceptions aside, it is troubling when blanket statements are made that seemingly undermine the use of strikes as a legitimate tool in the negotiation process.  Strikes can be portrayed as being political in character, but at root the politics of strikes can also be seen to reflect the very real economic and social living conditions of Zambians.

The monthly basic needs basket in Zambia, developed by the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection in Lusaka, shows in great detail the incomes earned and the costs paid by ordinary people throughout the country, both rural and urban. And despite the relative health of the copper market and the increased foreign investment in the country, the majority of Zambians remain unnecessarily trapped below the poverty line. Therefore, I would argue that the politics of labour are reflective of the economic realities of Zambia, and it is therefore essential that organized labour play a role in the growth of a more prosperous and inclusive country. As it currently stands, many of the fruits of resource extraction will not reach ordinary Zambians – not only the limited few members of the working class employed in the formal sector of the economy, but also those people hanging on precariously to the margins of the unpredictable and unforgiving informal economy. Unions can help change this political construction of poverty.  Organized labour can help ensure that those marginalized voices are authentically heard at the policy-making table and that appropriate social, economic and cultural policies follow; but this will only happen if the voice of labour itself is not muted.

Knowing both Zambia’s history and the highs and lows of his own political experience, Mr. Sata is well aware of the position that the labour movement can play in the transformation of the country.  However, while he may need to be cautious in his dealings with the more partisan elements of organized labour, it is important that there be not too much actual legislative (indeed, presidential) involvement in the dance of collective bargaining.  Secondly, beyond the bargaining table, it is also important that organized labour be afforded the necessary space to allow for the aggregation and articulation of the lived realities of the masses and to facilitate their greater participation in Zambia’s policy development and implementation process. Unions have a wider social role beyond simply the workplace and are essential to the functioning of a healthy democracy; Mr. Sata should remember this basic point.

Click here for the annual survey of violations of trade unions rights in Zambia for 2011.

Click here for more of our coverage on Zambian political developments.

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3 thoughts on “Trade Unions and Democracy in Zambia

  1. And accepting reality is more beneficial in the long-term than ignoring it.

    In this economy, we really do have to help each other.
    Try to include people – those who you would otherwise find uninteresting.

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