Mineworkers Union of Zambia (MUZ) President Joseph Chewe says the future of trade unionism in Zambia is being threatened by capitalist greed, the need to maximise profits and minimise losses at all costs.
Speaking during the official opening of the 15th quadrennial conference of the Mineworkers Union of Zambia in Livingstone, Mr. Chewe said the future of trade unions is also being threatened by the digitalisation of the workplace.
He said the advancements in technologies; mining methods, mechanisation, and automation of the production process have implied less and less demand for labour.
Mr. Chewe said new mines avoid labour costs through outsourcing and subcontracting to companies at abnormally low costs making it difficult for them to survive and later on to provide decent wages and working conditions for their workers.
He bemoaned the trend of laying off workers at will in the mining sector.
“As guided by rule 7 of the MUZ constitution and in respect of the industrial and labour relations act (cap 269) of the laws of Zambia this conference has two main aims namely; to reflect on the last four years since we held the last conference which elected my executive and use the lessons learnt to plan ahead and To elect new leadership for the next four years. This conference is important for various reasons. However, in the interest of time, I will focus on only two. Importance of the conference. Firstly, this conference illustrates the resilience of the union since its formation 74 years ago. Before privatisation, MUZ represented close to 60,000 workers. Today, eight unions represent just above 20,000 direct workers in the mining industry. The decline in union membership reflects the mass retrenchments and the contractualisation of labour by the new companies. Legal bans on strikes continue to be another challenge. I am happy to report here that MUZ has been able to withstand these pressures and continues to be a revolutionary mouthpiece for miners in Zambia,” Mr. Chewe said.
“This conference is being held at a time when the future of trade unions is threatened by the digitalisation of the workplace. Digitalisation refers to the advancements in technologies, mining methods, mechanisation, and automation of the production process which have implied less and less demand for labour. Related to this, is capitalist greed, the need to maximise profits and minimise losses at all costs. Today mining companies use the retrenchment of labour as their first response to global price fluctuations which has led to the decline of the number of directly employed miners by over 60 percent since 2000.”
“In addition, the new mines avoid labour costs through outsourcing and subcontracting to companies at abnormally low costs making it difficult for them to survive and later on to provide decent wages and working conditions for their workers. In the context of high unemployment and labour surplus people are prepared to work for almost nothing as long as they can provide a meal for their families. The low demand for labour, mass retrenchments and subcontracting all reduce union membership and hence threaten the future of unions,” Mr. Chewe said.
He said the threats trade unions are facing require a radical transformation, new ways of mobilising, financing and sustaining the unions beyond the traditional.
“These threats require a radical transformation in our thinking, and new ways of mobilising, financing and sustaining the unions beyond the traditional 20th-century ways of doing things. The world of work has changed. It is time for the unions to do so. The time is now. This conference provides us with an opportunity to reflect and plan on how MUZ responds to these challenges in the years ahead of us. In doing this, let us not forget the guiding principle of trade unionism-divided we fall, united we stand; an injury to one is an injury to all,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Chewe said MUZ works with the government of the day in a bid to improve the welfare of workers.
“Let me now turn to how MUZ is positioning itself with the new dawn government’s mining policies. Our duty is to maximise benefits for our members, protect their jobs, and defend their rights. In doing so, however, our approach is premised on working with the government of the day. This involves striking a balance between demands for improved wages and working conditions, the safety of workers, industrial harmony and supporting national development in our engagement with capital. This is important because mining remains a central pillar of Zambia’s economy accounting for over 70 percent of foreign exchange earnings, over 20 percent of GDP and government revenues. The current stabilisation of the kwacha is largely on account of increased forex from copper in the existing high demand and global copper prices. As the global economy transitions to electric cars, the Zambian copper mines will become even more important,” he said.
Mr. Chewe added that MUZ supports the New Dawn government’s ambition to increase production from the current 800,000 metric tonnes to over 3 million metric tonnes by 2030.
“Our role will be to ensure that increased copper production is not achieved at the expense of workers in terms of wages, working conditions and job security. We specifically call upon the government to put in place a legislation to curtail the rampant subcontracting in the mining sector more generally and specifically for core mining operations such as development and production. Recently, we saw how Lubambe mine turned permanent workers into precarious contractors on low pay lacking pension and union protection. At Lumwana mine sub-contractors such as Kasco, and Avantech are given 6 months contracts making it impossible for them to hire permanent workers, pay them decent wages and provide them with adequate protective clothing (ppe). This ongoing trend since 2000 is undermining the government’s fight against poverty and the decent work agenda promoted by the international labour organisation,” he said.
“Beyond the copper mines, MUZ supports the exploration of other minerals such as gold, manganese, emeralds, uranium, the new nickel mine and so forth. In welcoming the government’s pronouncements of creating a conducive environment for foreign direct investments (fdi), we urge the government to increase shareholding in existing mines to at least 50 percent or to allow Zambians to own shares in these companies through the Lusaka stock exchange. Local ownership is important given existing revelations which show how some foreign companies deployed doggy and shady business practices to avoid taxes and deny Zambians benefits from mining,” he concluded.