By Shadreck Zangairai
Last week I started a debate on whether decline in strike activity reflects that conflict is no longer an important feature in contemporary employment relationships. This week I will continue with my analysis. It seems employers have taken advantage of the vulnerability of workers to exploit labour at will. Some employers went further to bar employees from subscribing to unions. A research by Tarugarira concluded that employers further threatened to draw upon the wide pool of desperate job seekers in the event of a strike action. Such environment and conditions forced workers to suffer quietly thereby desisting from strike action. Their voices are suppressed. Those employees who cannot stand the heat will leave employment and cross borders in search of greener pastures. Conflict is there but people have leant to ignore or live with it. This contributed to the decline in strike activity thereby supporting the notion that conflict is not an important feature in contemporary employment relationships.
To add on, the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe reflects the imbalance of the working class versus the unemployed. Due to the retrenchments and company closures experienced since the turn of the millennium, many people got involved in informal employment. This weakened trade unions since their powerbase and strength is in numbers and unity. Trade unions also became disjointed because of failing to serve the interests of its members who in turn looked at other alternatives. This means that those workers who were left at work could not match the bargaining strength of the employers hence they are suppressed and keep quite. The image portrayed is that conflict is not important in the workplace because people have leant to live with it. According to the Marxist conflict theory, it emerges because company owners are seen as making profits by paying workers less than their work is worth, thus exploiting them. Here lies the core of industrial conflict.
Furthermore, the decline in strike activity is also necessitated by the restrictive laws passed by the government such as Maintenance of Peace and Order Act Chapter 11:23 or political interference. These are aimed at disrupting labour meetings, restricting information deemed to be politically volatile and frustrating any efforts to organize meetings. These laws made it practically impossible for legal strikes to take place. Period 1996-1999 was evidenced by mass strikes being initiated by the ZCTU. To combat the situation, the government introduced such laws which prohibited workers or their representatives to engage in collective job action without seeking authority from the police.
Trade unions were seen as a threat to the government hence imposition of the restrictive laws. Since then, the impact of strikes began to weaken. For example, in 2021 and 2022, a call for strike action by the nurses association was not a success because the government used the state machinery such as media, police and army to discourage people from participating. Even calls for strike by teachers unions recently was a flop because the government used everything at its disposable to deny the action. All this brought fear to workers who were left defenseless and this led to decline in strike activity. However such laws only reduced strike activity but cannot eradicate conflict in the workplace.
All in all, reasons for the decline in strike activity to some extent, deals with the effectiveness of the negotiating strategies available for settling disputes. If procedures exist whereby grievances can be speedily formulated and efficiently channeled into negotiating strategies, strikes will be unlikely. The use of the economic power such as strikes, to control conflict in employment relationships should be the last resort because of its adverse effects on the economy. Parties in employment relations have leant that before resorting to strike, they have to exhaust mediation and conciliation efforts to try and solve the dispute amicably and avoid industrial action as much as possible. Of late organisations have engaged in strategies that help create good workplace relations and manage conflict so as to avoid collective job action. Such positive strategies have seen the decline in strike activities reflecting that conflict is not an important feature in employment relations. However there are some negative strategies being employed that have led to the decline in strike activity. This includes use of restrictive laws to control strikes, disjointment of trade unions and use of power by those who own the means of capital. High unemployment may have made workers reluctant to strike over pay. Workers may have become more defensive, trying to protect their jobs, rather than trying to improve their standards of living by increasing their wages. In my next article I will focus on the disjointment of trade unions and its implications in resolving industrial conflicts.
Disclaimer; Shadreck Zangairai is the Principal Human Resources Officer at Masvingo
Provincial Hospital. He writes in his personal Capacity