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Labour | Human rights

Zambian trade unions increasingly met with violence

afrol News, 14 June - Although the legislation allows workers to unionise, anti-union discrimination is prevalent, both in the public and in the private sectors, according to a new report on labour rights in Zambia. Last year had seen many violent actions against trade unionists.

- So many requirements must be met to hold a strike that not a single legal strike has taken place since 1994, according to the annual survey of violations of trade union rights, released on Tuesday by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). "In the public sector, the national and municipal authorities have been increasingly reluctant to bargain with their employees." In March 2002, striking journalists were even forced back to work at gunpoint.

- Anti-union discrimination continues to exist, particularly against public sector workers, and the legal redress procedures are often not effective due to a lack of resources, says the ICFTU report.

Last year, many officials of municipal workers' trade unions had been dismissed for union activities. The public sector electricity company recently had brought disciplinary proceedings against the General Secretary of the electricity workers' union for reporting the management's plunder of the company's resources.

Meanwhile, private sector employers were artificially dividing workplaces in order to keep the number of workers below the minimum threshold, so they will not be compelled to recognise a union. The Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) thus reports a deteriorating situation for basic workers' rights in the private sector, including by multinationals present in the country.

For example, a multinational hotel chain had refused to pass on a 10 percent service charge to its employees, although mandated by Zambian law. Workers who protested were disciplined. Further, new workers in some private sector companies, particularly multinationals, are asked to sign a statement choosing a job over a union, and those who are not prepared to give up their right to unionise are not hired, ZCTU reports.

While collective bargaining is relatively widespread, public employees and their unions have met with "increasing reluctance on the part of the authorities, national and municipal, to bargain with their employees," the ICFTU report says.

Several high profile disputes in Zambia have dragged on for many months, with consistent allegations of bad faith bargaining being levelled against the authorities. A number of these cases have resulted in the workers going on protracted strikes, deemed illegal due to the restrictive legal requirements.

Public sector workers resorting to strikes had included magistrates and judges, doctors, nurses, teachers, civil servants and local council workers. In the case of the strike by hospital workers, the minister responsible had refused to meet the union, ZCTU reports. Many of those involved in the 2000 doctors' strike were dismissed, while others were forced to accept new contracts shortly after the strike was resolved.

The year 2002 - the period covered by the ICFTU report - had seen increased use of violence against trade unionists. On March 14, the 'Times of Zambia' management in Ndola, in the Copperbelt province, had used paramilitary police officers with strong-arm tactics to force striking journalists, most of them unionised, back to work, ICFTU reports.

- After dragging them from their homes, the officers forced the strikers to work at gunpoint, the report says. The Zambia Union of Journalists (ZUJ) condemned the act as an "unprecedented action" taken by management. The journalists had gone on strike in protest against poor administration which had delayed salary payments.

Journalists also demanded the suspension of managing director Emmanuel Nyirenda and of some of his senior managers. After the events, the strikers warned that they would only return to work after the officials involved had been audited. The strike started in Lusaka, the capital city, and had spread to the northern Copperbelt towns of Ndola and Kitwe. The 'Times of Zambia' - one of two leading State-owned newspapers - has its headquarters in Ndola.

On 17 December last year, the Mineworkers Union of Zambia (MUZ) building in Luanshya was set on fire by unknown people in unexplained circumstances. The fire, which caused material damage, took place just hours before 2,500 miners decided to go on strike to press for seven months' salary arrears, two years' Christmas bonuses and terminal benefits, the report says.

These events in 2002 sharply contrasted Zambian labour legislation, which states that workers have the right to join and form trade unions, although in principle there can only be one union per industry. Collective bargaining is also recognised by the law.

Further, anti-union discrimination is prohibited by law, which provides for redress, including reinstatement for workers fired as a result of union activities. Workers in theory have the right to strike except those engaged in essential services. Workers further enjoy certain legal protections against employer retribution for strike activities.

- However, the right to strike is subject to so many procedural requirements that it is next to impossible for workers to hold a legal strike, the ICFTU report notes. "As a result, no legal strikes have been held in Zambia since 1994."

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