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By Lawrence Paganga
MEMBERS of Parliament recently came face to face with the sad reality confronting hundreds of workers currently working under difficult conditions at some State-owned enterprises.
Some of them have gone for years without receiving their salaries.
During a tour of State-owned companies in Matabeleland North’s Hwange and Dete districts, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare interviewed workers at Hwange Colliery Company Limited (HCCL), the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) and Dete Refractories, which manufactures bricks and tiles.
Workers at Dete Refractories have not received their salaries for the past two years.
They have, instead, been receiving bricks for resell as part of payment of their outstanding salaries.
The workers told the MPs heartrending tales of ill-treatment by management as well as their struggles to pay rentals, school and medical fees.
Ironically, senior managers are reportedly living comfortably as they constantly receive their monthly salaries and allowances, including medical aid benefits.
“What we noticed at the (Dete) Refractories, after visiting Hwange Colliery Company, is that the workers were being treated like slaves. They are not allowed to go for tea time or break and did not have protective clothing,” St Mary’s MP, Unganai Tarusenga said after the tour.
“They are not being paid salaries, but are being paid in kind. They are given bricks as payment and asked to sell the bricks… We noticed that the way workers are being treated in all those companies is tantamount to slavery,” he said.
ZANU-PF proportional representation MP, Molly Mkandla said: “Most of the children of the lower grade workers are not going to school or getting medical attention. However, most of the managers’ children are well educated and getting medical attention when they get sick. They still have maids and garden workers who are paid by the company yet B grade workers are not being paid. Hwange Colliery gives people beans and mealie meal for food. Some do not even have proper and adequate shelter.”
At NRZ in Hwange, the workers felt abandoned and complained that they were reporting for work barefooted, while they risked being attacked by wild animals as they walked long distances to their homes inside the Hwange National Park.
At its peak, NRZ, employed over 20 000 workers and paid some of the most competitive salaries in the country.
But it now owes its workers US$87 million in unpaid salaries.
What concerned the lawmakers most was that coal and other coal products were being extracted and there was a ready market for them with NRZ moving the mined product to customers.
“If we can have a quarter of these extracted resources ploughed back to Hwange, the workers would be paid, but we have misplaced priorities. Let them (workers) enjoy their benefits in their locality,” Chegutu West legislator, Dexter Nduna said.
Mazowe South legislator, Fortune Chasi weighed in: “There are very serious health ramifications taking place in the mines because they are no facilities there.
“They were originally supplied by the mine owners in the past, but as of now, the mines have completely forgotten the workers and are simply concerned about getting the gold or whatever mineral that is there to be extracted.”
The parliamentary debate on the state of affairs in Hwange was so heated that it forced the Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Mudenda and Minister of Mines and Mining Development Walter Chidhakwa to immediately visit the mining town to make their own assessment of what was happening there.
During their visit, HCCL managing director, Thomas Makore, said it has not been well at the company ever since many of their colleagues were retrenched.
Some of those who were not retrenched were working only two weeks per month.
Makore prayed that HCCL manages to get recapitalisation to enable it to open new concessions.
MPs, however, noted that political interference and nepotism were some of the vices that were also contributing to the demise of State enterprises with responsible ministers being accused of appointing girlfriends and relatives into their boards of directors.
“There are unsaid issues that are happening at the Hwange Colliery Company and I always question those things. Why would you continue to appoint (board members) in a company that is literally not functional or no longer productive? The boards are mostly made up of girlfriends with no qualifications.
“Those people are either girlfriends or relatives of some Cabinet ministers.
“The problem that we are having is the same problem that is affecting all parastatals: Political interference, the culture of entitlement, patronage and the culture where people simply steal and they are not made to account,” said MP for Binga North, Prince Dubeko Sibanda.
The state of affairs at the parastatals could be a reflection of the decadence at most of the 91 State-owned enterprises.
Recent reports indicate that thousands of workers at the Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Company in Redcliff, have for the past 10 years been reporting for work only to spend their time playing draughts and other games before knocking off at the end of the day.