The Head of State and Government, and Commander-in-Chief for the Zimbabwe Defence Forces His Excellency the President Cde Emmerson Mnangagwa to mark International Workers’ Day
Today is MAY DAY, a day which we, alongside the United Nations, have dedicated to honouring workers. The United Nations set aside this day out of a recognition of the critical role which the workforce plays worldwide, be it in families, in our communities and in our nation.
Indeed outside what God created in the beginning, all things great and small, come from human creativity, labour and effort. At the centre of that universal creative effort is the worker: those men and women we today honour and celebrate.
Happy Workers’ Day, Dear Zimbabweans!
I address you at a time when labour relations and labour protection have assumed grave, life-threatening dimensions worldwide. Whereas in the past we used to worry about fair wages for a day’s work, or worry about skills and unemployment; yes, worry about the life of a worker beyond its active, productive phase, that is, in retirement, today we face a menace of unimaginable proportions.
We face an overbearing global threat from a highly infectious, contagious disease we now know as coronavirus. The pandemic continues to blight millions of lives, claiming hundreds of thousands worldwide. As I address you, more than 3,2 million cases have been reported worldwide; and of these, over 225 000 have since succumbed. Recoveries stand at slightly over 1 million worldwide. What breaks my heart is that many from these staggering numbers of infections and deaths draw from the global workforce, prominently our workers in the health sector.
In our case, infections now stand at 40, with four deaths recorded since the outbreak, and five recoveries so far. By global comparison, we are still fortunate, even though the pain from lost loved ones is great and as acute as anywhere in the affected world. The pandemic is real, and its spread is extremely rapid. We therefore are at great risk.
As your President, I wake up every morning, agonising over the daunting prospect of an ailing workforce, or to a frightful, yet real grim chance of one more worker, having succumbed to the pandemic.
We have to avoid this at all cost. We cannot afford any more loss of life than we have already borne. This is why your Government has had to take very tough, yet unavoidable measures, to safeguard life. Those measures may have brought our nation to a complete standstill, and our economy to virtual shutdown. The challenges for you, our workers, and for your families, have grown bigger and harsher. You have had to endure them with utmost pain.
There is more to the virus in relation to the worker. Not only has it stolen more lives, but daily threatens your jobs and thus your livelihoods. Families are in distress, as is also our entire economy.
The greater part of the workforce stays at home, often without income. By extension, social life has been on total lockdown, making life very difficult for everyone. I empathise greatly, but dread the inevitable horror of any let-up. We have to stay the course until we flatten the curve, slow down the spread, and eventually overtake the pandemic.
Today, no one can plausibly argue that capital alone creates wealth or that technology alone manufactures wealth. Indeed that natural resources, important as they may be, cannot alone pass for wealth.
That, too, means at the heart of national policy must be the sustenance of this key cog in the social production of life itself, namely the worker. The worker must be able to reproduce his and her life so he continues to work for humanity. That means giving him a living wage, one by which he can sustain himself and his family. This has to be the primary goal of any government, including our own. True, we often come short of this key goal, but the commitment to support and sustain the worker should and must always be there.
Since last year, Government has continued to adjust your earnings, with a view to making them living wages. Yet the goal of taming inflation and the general cost of living, has largely remained elusive, an ungraspable mirage. Elusive, because of the successive droughts which continue to visit us, making our nation a net importer of food. Elusive because of punitive, illegal sanctions which continue to beset us, closing possibilities for our economy. And now, even more elusive, because of the global Covid-19 pandemic which has thrown us and the rest of the world, off rail, into a severe recession. Predictably, our economy will close the year in the negative territory. So, too, will economies of the world, including the strongest ones.
For us, agriculture, which is the mainstay of our economy, and the biggest employer of our workforce, must recover and be sustained, to make us a food-secure nation. Government continues to unveil a number of initiatives, including Smart Agriculture, Presidential Input Support Scheme and a greater thrust on irrigation development, to ensure precious jobs in the agricultural sector are secured and expanded. We must step up irrigation, both small and large-scale, for climate-proofed agriculture, and thus create jobs. We have targeted 80 000 hectares for irrigation under A2, and another 20 000 hectares under A1 and for communal areas.
In the interim, and in view of the successive lean years we have had, Government continues to import more food for distribution to all our people, including to workers and their families, be they in rural or urban areas. We have expanded food distribution into urban areas to take care of our workforce especially in these distressful times. The silver lining is that the prices of maize on the global grain market continue to soften, with some of our neighbours who had better rains than us, reporting significant surpluses.
Apart from agriculture, the mining sector is key to overall job creation. Even at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, we shielded this critical sector which kept many families going, and our economy afloat. As with agriculture, there is lots of self-employment, principally in the subsector of artisanal mining. Now that security concerns in that sub-sector have been stabilised, Government will move resolutely to ensure clearer claims and mining rights, and to support artisanal miners financially, technologically and by way of better marketing mechanisms, especially in the area of gold production.
I am happy that while platinum prices have softened, those of iridium, rhodium and palladium continue to firm up, with the last two trading at about US$8 000 and US$1 962 per ounce, respectively. This means what we lose on the swings of low prices for gold and platinum, we regain on the roundabouts of firming prices of other PMG metals. The message is thus clear: production, production, production for more jobs, better earnings, and for the rapid recovery of our economy.
Mindful of the need to ensure safety of our workers from Covid-19 infections, we have now cleared the way for the opening of our tobacco floors. The measures we have taken to safeguard the safety of our workforce, include a decentralised marketing mechanism, enforcement of screening and observance of social distance during trading. We have also put in place bookings and deliveries which limit the numbers that gather around our floors on any one trading day. However important tobacco is to our economy, we should put the life of the worker above profit.
While the global focus may be on workers in formal employment, our own peculiar economic circumstances require that we place greater focus on small-to-medium enterprises, and on the broad informal sector. These subsectors have sustained the greater number of national livelihoods as our nation battles myriad adversities, whether natural or man-made. This means our programmes aimed at defending and sustaining worker welfare must put these two subsectors at the heart of our policies. Already, Government has decided to include special, well-tailored packages for SMEs and the informal sector in its overall Post-Covid-19 Stimulus Recovery Measures which I shall announce shortly.
The Covid-19 global pandemic has been a wake-up call, which has shaken us all out of complacency. As a long-term measure against any such pandemics in future, we have to reorganise our SMEs and informal markets, large and small, so that both are public health-compliant. That means spacing units and markets in line with requirements of public health standards which must become a mandatory part of all our human activity and settlements. This is one big take-away from the pandemic, and one with a direct bearing on the worker.
As I conclude my address, let me share with you my thoughts on ensuring greater security and satisfaction to our workforce. Both because of Covid-19 and because of the sheer instability of our economy for the foreseeable future, a paradigm shift in respect of worker welfare has become more than necessary and urgent. We must think beyond wages.
FIRST, we must ensure our workplaces meet WHO public health standards. No sector or sub-sector must be exempt from this requirement which must be enforced both in the interest of workers, and that of greater society. Going forward, public heath yardstick will be foremost in the way we organise our business, all business premises and work stations.
SECOND, we must ensure proper personal protection equipment and facilities at all workstations. Again, this must be in line with WHO standards which our health inspectors must enforce vigorously. The health inspector shall be a key persona in industrial relations, and at all places of work which must be repurposed towards public health exigencies and goals.
THIRD, we must include in the workman and woman package issues of healthcare giving. That makes the issue of disease and virus containment and cure much more than a private, family affair. It is as much an issue for the employee as it is for employer and Government. Our issue together! All our health facilities must match the demand for health services by our nation, both by way of numbers and by way of capabilities. Again this puts the worker at the centre.
FOURTH, a well-housed workforce is a bulwark against epidemics and pandemics. Good, well-spaced residential housing schemes are the best panacea against diseases. In saying this, I am not shooting down high-rise residential projects; rather, I am emphasising that such housing schemes should not translate into untidy, overcrowded and unhygienic settlements devoid of proper public spaces, adequate amenities and recreational spaces and facilities.
FIFTH, delivery of public utilities and services in both urban and rural areas must match up and meet public health standards. To that end, our planned urban renewal programmes I mooted in Mbare, and subsequently launched in Mutare’s Sakubva high-density suburb, should henceforth receive attention and matching resources. They are, after all, habitats of our workforce, which deserve nothing short of liveable conditions which approximate the wealth they create for our society. A broad, multifaceted, all-encompassing social programme must be put on the table, with the private sector involvement being enlisted and encouraged through various incentives. Above all, our municipalities and rural authorities must rise to the occasion, so we make our built-up environments liveable.
SIXTH AND LAST, from a consolidation of all of the above, every employer, in whatever sector of our economy, must and should think beyond the weekly or monthly wage. Over the years, we have realised how easily erodible wages are, especially in times of economic shocks, destabilisations and instability. Now we have this new, dreadful factor of a global viral pandemic. Clearly, the years ahead show all these as the conditioning norm for global businesses, in which case we are best advised to cushion the worker through a more resilient, shock-proof system of reward and resilience. The bottom-line is that the worker must have food, shelter, and must be able to afford health services, while being able to send his/her children to school. This, dear compatriots, must be the new thrust and ethic for us all, whatever sector we play in.
Before I conclude, let me say a word or two regarding one sector we have barely paid attention to. Sometime last year I held an indaba in Bulawayo with players in our creative industry — the artists. Generally, this is an industry which thrives on crowds: by way of musical shows, performances, markets, etc, etc. Expectedly, the extended national lockdown has denied this vital sector the crowds which are its lifeline. I am therefore instructing Minister Kirsty Coventry to make a proposal to Government on how best this sector can be helped, post-Covid-19.
Let me conclude by again thanking our workforce for producing and sweating for our nation. Without your dedication to work, our economy can never recover. In the same vein, I want to thank you all for abiding by the very difficult measures we put in place to safeguard our nation and, with it, your families which were at great risk from the Covid-19 pandemic. The battle is not yet won and we should not lower our guard.
Let me also heartily thank all our employers for standing by, and supporting our entire workforce during the national lockdowns. This makes for good industrial relations, indeed for stability at workplaces. Above all, to thank employers most heartily for generously contributing to the national response to the Covid-19 challenge. You rose to the occasion in a true Zimbabwean fashion, thus making the load a lot lighter for our Government.
Let the lot of the worker continue to receive our utmost attention and support.
I thank you and once more, Happy Workers Day Zimbabweans!