The interview was conducted by Gilbert Knies, FES Zambia.
Interviewer: What’s the historic background of trade unions in Zambia?
The story of wealth creation is a historical one. Before the concept of paid labour, most of the communities were doing farming, be it in Europe, America or Africa.
But with changes in human development, like industrialisation, we saw what we call rural-urban drift. That means people from the rural areas were looking for paid labour in cities where wealth was being created. If you look at the Zambian scenario, urban drift is all related to commercial copper mining. Commercial copper mining started around 1925 in Kitwe and then many people started to come to work here. They needed to pay all kinds of taxes that were introduced by the British colonial government.
The people started commercial copper mining, the country was not industrialized to add value to copper. The British built railway lines over here to export copper. They decided to put their factories very far, while the wealth was being created elsewhere. In economics, you don’t do that. You put factories where the materials are to pay low transportation costs. But the historical injustice was: the wealth is created locally but the factories are situated somewhere else. We just need local labour to take out the mineral wealth.
It didn’t take long for conflict to manifest itself over wealth redistribution. Commercial copper mining started in 1925, ten years down the line, by 1935 the first industrial strike was recorded in Zambia. The African miners were on strike and their claim was: ‘We are being underpaid!’ Without the unions then, they realised that they were not getting a fair share for their work. And that strike was put down through bullets by the colonial government. Those fatal shootings didn’t stop the people from feeling that they’re being underpaid; five years later, in 1940, another strike came. And the claim was the same: ‘We are being underpaid!’
At that time, the colonial government installed the John Voster Commission of Inquiry to find out ‘what is this problem that we’re having?’ And they found as well that African miners were being underpaid and a recommendation was made by the commission of inquiry in 1940to start collective bargaining.
So collective bargaining was introduced after this commission in 1940 to help promote harmony in the labour market and to help to share the benefits. So, wherever we see people cooperating to create wealth, there are all kinds of different interests: the investors or business owners are interested to make profits - they have already sorted out that question in their business plans by setting the return on invest or equity; the government, too, wants to get a share of that wealth through direct taxes or indirect taxes – so they have answered that question; so the only ones who remain are the employees: how do they get that wealth? Well, they get that wealth through a wage.
Now the minimum wage – which is prescribed by the minister – is always below the real wage. Those who are unionised, they send unions to the bargaining table to negotiate. Now that’s where it gets complicated. In theory, the unions operate on the principle of free collective bargaining. But when they sit on the bargaining table, they find that no one is telling them how big the cake is, that is productivity and company performance.
Interviewer: The workers who create the wealth (‘bake the cake’) in the first place don’t really know how big it is. And it follows, they don’t know how big their share should be.
That is correct. So when it comes to negotiations, it’s like everyone who is negotiating from a period of darkness where you really don’t know whether you have created wealth or not, or how much they created. But this shouldn’t be the case because everything in life is measured: productivity is measured, company performance is measured, and even losses are measured.
But then the question is: Why do companies fail to open up to show employees how the company performed, that is: how big the cake is and who should get which share of it? Like: some of the money, workers will not get it because they are expanding the business, some of the money goes to the shareholders and some of the money goes to raising wages.
So it gets complicated because where the labour movement is coming from blue-collar workers who started the unions did not have the skills to engage in effective social dialogue. They did have the social power to disrupt production and get an increment on the bargaining tables. Today, we are at a stage were essentially where nobody should get killed for salary concessions to be made. Everyone wants to justify why they are demanding so much.
Interviewer: As an individual, I would definitely rely on unions to negotiate for me, otherwise I would fail in getting my fair share. What’s the unions’ current challenge in Zambia?
The unions’ challenge actually is – like now in Zambia where the union density has decreased after we turned our economy from a public sector-led economy to a private sector-led economy. The challenge of the unions in Zambia right now is to actually start dedicating some funds to organising so that they rebuild their membership which is in decline and increase union density. This would give them a greater voice at the bargaining table to actually determine where the knife will pass when it comes to sharing the cake.
At the moment, most of the workers have left the formal sector, they are all on the streets in these mobile money booths and all that. And we find that there is a very weak union voice. The job of them now is to strengthen union membership, increasing union density and finally reskill your bargaining units: do the research on how the company is performing. Does it have the ability to pay? How can we distribute this wealth? And it can be done but unions need help. They need help on how to reskill the bargaining units. It can happen.
Employers now are very clever. They are taking money where it is cheaper to produce. But cheaper to produce is no good for unions. The ILO calls that race to the bottom. We have precarious jobs being created which are actually taking away the rights that workers have accumulated over a period of time. These workers are vulnerable. What we need from the unions is to invest more in worker’s education so that they know about these rights. Only if they know about these rights, then they can use them to defend themselves.
Interviewer: If we don’t invest in unions and their bargaining power, the wages will fall further. What is your advice to the unions and to the Zambian workers?
The wages are going to fall. We are going to see workers being given wages that are below inflation which are basically nominal wages. And that is going to continue to promote poverty and hardship. The unions have to learn that they need to follow the jobs. We are in the knowledge economy where jobs are leaving the formal economy. The union should follow every single job, unionize it and make it formal. That would help us to rebuild union power and union strength and regain a voice at the bargaining table.
As long as there’s work, there will always be workers. As long as there are workers, there will always be unions. Unions are not going to die, they have to follow the changes in the economy. But the unions should be fast enough and invest in making the union attractive to a modern worker today. And they should improve on services, not just financial services but what I call employee welfare.