By Musyani Siame
Casualization of graduate workers on short term contracts has reached unprecedented high levels at ZAFFICO and is awfully going against labor laws. The fundamental question is, how long is a person supposed to work under contract before being placed on permanent position at ZAFFICO?
In trying to synthesize and demand for answers to the prelude question, I must state that this volume is a continuation of the first titled ‘zero occupational health and safety and workers abuse at ZAFFICO’ which was published on Lusaka Times on June 9, 2020. I brought out many burning yet necessary issues ranging from lack of safety of workers to abnormal work targets to workers abuse at the corporation. Furthermore, although the first volume was characterized more by emotion than reason, I focus this volume on pushing the hidden issue of undesirable casualization at ZAFFICO into the limelight.
Zambia has only two institutions which train foresters: Zambia Forestry College under Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources and the Copperbelt University. ZAFFICO and Forestry Department are the major employers of forester graduates. However, the number of forester graduates without jobs has been on the increase since 2002 when government last employed massively. The situation proliferated to extreme casualization at ZAFFICO and other big organizations. I must confess that casualization has created the atmosphere of abuse of graduate workers especially those on short term contracts. Therefore, I find it attractive to raise some concerns and consequences. I additionally contend that while ZAFFICO cannot do without these foresters on contracts, it has paid very little attention to their salaries and terms of conditions which are very bad.
Workers are consecutively given one month casual contracts for years. This type of contract is for non-graduate field workers who do the actual manual work in the field earning about K50 per day. This is a starting point of casualization and graduate workers abuse. For instance, workers under contract are ill-treated by making them stay on a one-month casual contract for so many years before moved to the next position of a field supervisor and be placed at least on a one-year contract. If not, one has to know someone who knows someone with influence in the corporation (connections).
It is sad that the graduate workers on contracts are poorly paid as compared to permanent workers and in relation to the amount of hard work they offer to ZAFFICO. Field supervisors and others on contract are in fact regarded as the tools of the corporation. Moreover, they are squarely abused as they are given abnormal work targets to attain without safe working conditions.
And Perhaps more prominent, is the huge difference in salaries and terms of conditions between permanent workers and contract workers at the corporation. It is so displeasing that permanent workers get paid almost 3 times the salaries of contract based workers at the same level and yet in reality, contract workers do more work in the field. In plain fact, this is evil and mockery to contract workers who are distressed, outraged, annoyed and incensed about the huge salary disparities at ZAFFICO.
There must be uniformity of treatment between the two types of workers. The corporation must strive to strike a balance between contract and permanent workers and treat all employees in the same fashion. Both permanent and contract workers must be paid same salaries and be given the same working conditions without favoring one type. Nevertheless, obtuse disparity in salaries at ZAFFICO is a diseases needing sufficient treatment. The current dogmatism towards contract workers has potential to exacerbate frustration and compromise productivity. Contract workers deserve a decent pay too.
The dramatic events of high casualization, poor salaries, abnormal workload and poor terms of conditions at ZAFFICO have been going on for a long time and have been marked with some of the worst abuses of workers on contracts. I would also note that hardworking of workers on contracts is the least prized virtues at ZAFFICO because work culture allots much greater penalties and warnings for failure than rewards for success. The truth of the matter is that; the corporation has capacity to absorb all the graduates working on casual and short term contracts. ZAFFICO continues to reap huge benefits at the expense of these graduates who are poorly paid, over exploited and without offering them permanent employment for years.
Mostly, ZAFFICO places its workers on one-month contract and or one year contracts for a very long time some as long as six years or more making the cooperation to seem immune to labor laws. Going forward, people are not going to continue celebrating the achievements the cooperation is making while undermining workers on short term contracts. We cannot afford to sit and see fellow foresters becoming the sacrificial lambs of the corporation. There is high need for sanity and hygiene at ZAFFICO before it can even officially go public.
The corporation must start respecting labor laws and uplift the plight of hard working foresters particularly those on contracts. The cooperation must not continue to hang graduates simply because they have nowhere to go and look for jobs. Casualization and workers abuse must be overturned and put to an end. The vices of ill-treating casual and contract workers in the name of compassionate must be stopped. These workers deserve better terms of conditions and salaries as those on permanent basis. Moreover, the cost of putting contract workers on permanent jobs is not even a big issue because the corporation has enough money. The big issue is with the management trying to minimize the operation cost unnecessarily.
Besides, President Edgar Lungu in 2015 signed into law the amended Employment Act No. 15 Cap 268 of the Laws of Zambia which makes casualization and unjustifiable termination of contracts of employment illegal. government banned casualization and unjustified termination of employment but the case is different with ZAFFICO. It still has a huge workforce of graduate casual workers who are paid poor salaries. the amended Employment Act into law meant that it is illegal for any employer (ZAFFICO) to engage an employee (contract worker) on a casual basis for any job which is of a permanent nature yet the corporation is not following such regulations. Instead, it is capitalizing on the vulnerable graduates by offering them casual jobs on short term contracts for too many years. The implication is that these workers have no say regarding the circumstance, there have no job security as their contracts are unjustifiably terminated at any time and they have for a long time, suffered exploitation and abuse of their rights.
Once more, casualization at ZAFFICO has propagated high worker turnout. Since there is no employment security, contract workers are unjustifiably dismissed citing many reason such as failure to meet the abnormal work targets in silviculture section, failure to account for logs in logging section, failure to suppress fire in fires section and many more. The corporation has nothing to lose in terms of contract breach and compensations to dismissed workers and this has amplified rampant casualization. However, the case is different with permanent workers who are just transferred to other stations or departments without being dismissed because of job security.
That being said, the status quo of contract workers at ZAFFICO is bad as if they do not subscribe to a union. Each time the union go to represent workers in meetings, it always sides with the corporation management and biased towards permanent workers. Such are the characteristics of the weak union as a whole because it fails to represent the real issues its members are facing such as poor salaries, abnormal work targets and imbalance of working terms of conditions. These workers pay subscription fee to the union every month yet do not get value for their money. On one hand If the situation endures, I would suggest that another separate union be formed for contract workers in order to have a balance of representation between contract workers and permanent one. While on another hand, I suggest the criteria for choosing union leaders be changed so to get firm unionist to stand with the employees and not the management.
As a matter of observation, it is unnecessary for ZAFFICO to have a Business Development as a directorate because the corporation does not have market competition for it its products. The directorate is a huge cost and a share waste of resources for the simple reason that ZAFFICO purely operates in a monopolistic manner. No other company supply round wood like ZAFFICO and if there is any, it is insignificant. In fact, the demand for round wood is always more than the supply which, in my simple understanding, does not need Business Development section to function as a directorate. The fact is other products other than round wood are secondary such as tea, seedlings and poles which are actually at infant stage. And of course not forgetting ‘Mukula’ tree which is highly political. So, there is totally zero competition and as such, I see no reason why Business Development should be given a directorate status at ZAFFICO. Arguably with all due respect, let the Business Development directorate be reduced to the level of a subsection and be headed by the Assistant Manager of some sort who’s at same level as Fire Control Officer (FCO) and not a director. The resources committed to servicing the directorate can therefore be channeled to revising, readjustment and improving salaries of contract workers and equalize them with those of permanent workers.
In sum, ZAFFICO is big and as it continues to expand, workers on contract becomes an integral part of the corporation and they deserve to be treated as important assets and be subjected to the same terms of conditions of permanent workers. This is not much to ask for because the corporation has capacity to employ all the workers on contract and still operate normally going by its cash flow or cost and benefit analysis. Most importantly, it is my hope that the challenges facing contract workers highlighted in this volume will be considered without any emotions but reason as this is not war to malign the corporation but a route in pursuit of amicable and desirable solutions to the challenges.
The author is an environmental and water consultant