Saturday, November 29, 2008


Written by Editor

The fragmentation in the labour movement in the country is a matter that needs serious consideration, reflection and deep meditation. We say this because the power or strength of trade unions lies in unity and numbers.

It is clear that our trade unions are not performing as expected; they are not representing workers as well as they should due to fragmentation.

We therefore welcome Zambia National Union of Teachers (ZNUT) general secretary Roy Mwaba's call for the teachers' unions in the country to unite and avoid being manipulated by politicians.

Mwaba says ZNUT has proposed a possible merger with Secondary School Teachers Union of Zambia (SESTUZ) and Basic Teachers Union of Zambia (BETUZ). And he is worried that the unions have been weakened by our politicians through divide-and-rule tactics while making promises when they want their support.

ZNUT's suggestion is very progressive and other trade unions should consider going in the same direction.

A strong and united trade union is not only prerequisite to industrial harmony; it is key to economic and political development in the country.

Undoubtedly, the labour movement generally in Africa played a key role during the liberation struggle and their strength was tested years after independence when most trade unions opened themselves up to political manipulation by the ruling parties and various governments, thus leaving workers vulnerable due to poor labour laws and representation.

The splinter unions that were introduced in Zambia in the early 1990s when the Chiluba regime changed the law to allow for pluralism in the labour movement. This fragmented the labour movement and weakened our trade unions' capacity to represent workers effectively due to different interests by their leaders.

We see absolutely no need for teachers or miners to have three or four unions if their concerns are the same or very similar. We are not against diversity or pluralism.

But diversity or pluralism is of very little value if all it does is divide and weaken our trade unions, rendering them impotent. It is said that there is strength in unity. Moreover, it is much easier for one to manipulate a small trade union, a small group of people than a big trade union.

Right now, the country, especially in the mining sector, is affected by the global economic crisis, which has already led to serious job losses. This situation requires urgent attention by various stakeholders, including government and the labour movement. We need our trade unions to be more united than ever during this global economic crisis, which will affect almost every sector of the economy.

There is need for concerted efforts to ensure that measures are put in place to cushion workers from suffering, and this can only come through united action. The central function of the trade union is to represent workers, and their wider role is to protect workers' interests.

They also have a role to ensure a healthy and safe working environment for their members. However, there is very little that the labour movement will achieve on this score if the current fragmentation continues.

This fragmentation is further compounded by internal squabbles and rivalry driven by personal ambitions of trade union leaders, which further weaken the unions' capacity to play an effective role.

These divisions are sometimes perpetuated by politicians, who try to use trade union leaders for their own political ends. This further weakens trade unions' capacity to effectively represent workers.

Our labour movement also needs to understand that fragmentation in the union has its own administrative costs, which are currently very high.

If the trade unions, say in the teaching profession, decided to merge, they would save a lot of money. And such savings could be channelled towards further strengthening their trade unions. This could also help to improve the quality of leadership in the trade unions.

Our laws, as they stand today, do not support or favour the establishment of effective and efficient trade unions. To some extent one can even say that the trade unions have become almost useless. And this is not good for the country's labour and economy in general. We need strong, effective and efficient trade unions that will be able to promote and defend interests of the workers and indeed of the people.

The problems some of our workers are facing today have come about because their leaders have entrusted their plight in the hands of others.

The role of trade unions is also key in the political transformation of our country. But this too can only be achieved if there is unity of purpose in the labour movement.

South Africa is a very good example of what unity in the labour movement can do. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was founded in 1995 and has a membership of over two million workers, of which 1.8 million are paid up. Apart from working towards improving conditions for workers and other working people and organising the unorganised, COSATU has also continued to encourage workers to participate in the struggle for peace and democracy.

From inception, COSATU has had firm principles on important issues such as the constitution, wages for workers, non-racialism, social and political policy, international worker solidarity and leadership among others. The union has been very effective in pressing for the interest of their workers and we strongly believe that our labour movement can learn lessons from this gigantic and strong labour movement.

It is very clear that plurality has failed to strengthen our trade unions and it is about time that the various unions in all sectors of the country got back to the drawing board. The labour movement is not as strong as it was 20, 17 or 15 years ago and something has to be done to correct the situation.

The plurality of trade unions, or indeed unity itself, is not a principle but an expedience in the quest to promote and defend workers' interests. And since it is not a principle, compromises that promote unity are not a violation of any principles and should be undertaken. This may help to strengthen the labour movement's muscle and put it in a better position to promote and defend the interests of our workers.

We therefore call for the unification of all our trade unions so that we have one strong congress of trade unions in the country.

We also call for a return to the position of one industry, one union. Again this is not a matter of principle but of expedience in our efforts to strengthen the capacity of our trade unions so that they can effectively promote and defend the interests of workers.

It can be done and it must be done.

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