(By Edwin Mbulo in Livingstone)
ACTING President Inonge Wina yesterday pacified ZCTU delegates who heckled labour minister Joyce Nonde-Simukoko’s explanation over their concerns on taxes, mines’ redundancies and ministers’ emoluments.
And ZCTU president Chishimba Nkole has warned of more retrenchments in the mining sector if the redundancy law is not amended.
The Vice-President in her soft mature tone began her speech by noting that Simukoko, a former trade unionist, was getting carried away after she was constantly heckled by ZCTU delegates in her reaction to Nkole, who had raised various PF governance concerns.
Nkole had said he was using the 15th Zambia Congress of Trade Unions Quadrennial Congress to warn government that the continued introduction of all forms of taxes had eroded workers’ incomes and impoverished them.
He asked the Vice-President as to how many taxes the PF government wanted to impose on Zambians.
“Government must realise that it is dangerous to take the patience of the workers and people in general for granted. Just a few weeks ago, we were being told that Parliament had approved two more taxes which are going to push the fuel prices up. This is unacceptable and government should not stretch its luck too far! The salaries of workers are not being increased and yet government wants to introduce taxes at every opportunity instead of improving the lives of citizen. Poverty levels are increasing every day, we are left wondering how pro-poor this government is,” Nkole said.
“The cost of living is unbearable and it is even more frustrating to see constitutional office holders increasing their salaries, while the common worker is being denied the same.”
Nkole said there was a lot of abuse and exploitation of workers in Zambia adding that more than 1,000 miners at Kalumbila Mine were threatened with redundancies.
“Why should workers be held to ransom in their own country and over their own resources? There could be more lay-offs in the mining and other sectors if we allow this trend to continue. We must not let our guard down, we need to amend the redundancies law now,” said Nkole.
In her reaction, Simukoko said the labour movement made her what she was today and that she has never forgotten where she comes from.
However, with regards the Redundancy Law which Nkole said must be amendment, she said it was up to the labour movement to enforce the laws and not put the blame on government.
“Unless you are saying that you are scared, then call upon me, I will come and tell your members that you are scared and they will remove you. So the choice is yours, we have passed a lot of laws and the ZCTU was well represented when we were passing the laws,” Simukoko said. “When you fail, the law is very clear where you go next. You declare a dispute and you go for reconciliation and when reconciliation fails, that is when the Ministry of Labour comes in and when the ministry fails to mediate, the law says we go to court…let us not start hammering government even where it has done its part.”
Over the increase in taxes and Nkole’s question as to how pro-poor the PF government was, Simukoko said the PF was a friendly government, pro-poor and loved the workers.
This attracted negative reactions from the delegates who shouted ‘No!’
“Whether you say no, we are pro-poor and we will continue to be pro-poor. But we need your participation, let’s work together,” Simukoko said amidst increased shouts of “no” as others shouted “awee”.
On taxes, Simukoko attracted more negative shouts from the delegates with some saying it was too much.
“Let all Zambians pay the tax, we can’t do without it…. Ok if you think we can do without it, bring it to my office. My office is open, bring your solution. So taxation, we are widening it, we are all going to pay tax. Somebody talked about the constitutional officers getting salary increases. Dear delegates, you are leaders, if there is anything that will one day take this country to war, it is rumour mongering, gossip and deceit. There is no constitutional office that has been give salary increase. Okay if there is, if there are and you have necessary information, bring it to my office…how well I was going to resolve this problem!” Simukoko said amidst heckling.
“Redundancy, which redundancy? You are all talking, so I can’t…ah…one person…one person…can you allow me to answer.”
At this point a delegate identified as Ndhlovu tried to calm the audience by leading them into a slogan of ‘abash intimidation’ and later begged his colleagues to allow the minister to speak.
Simukoko thanked him for his protection.
But Vice-President Wina said despite the challenges that the PF government was going through, it still represents the hopes, dreams and aspirations of millions of Zambians.
“Your message regarding the introduction of taxes is loud and clear, your message regarding enactment of labour laws or reviewing these laws has been made very clear this morning and we are determined as government to work extra hard to address some of these very pertinent concerns that the labour movement is making,” Vice-President Wina said amidst applause.
She said the government remained committed to maintain a harmonious and progressive industrial relations in the country.
“I am aware that the delay to the revision of the current labour laws has raised concern amongst yourselves. This is an issue that has also worried us and is receiving active attention. I have instructed the relevant ministries to hasten the process and ensure that this is done as soon as possible,” Vice-President Wina said.
On the mines redundancy issue, she said the government had the responsibility of considering national interests first.
“It is in our interest to adequately deal with matters that may negatively impact on the lives of our citizens. I, therefore, call upon all well-meaning investors to also take into consideration national interests as they consider their business interests,” Vice-President Wina said. “But the role of government, the duty of government is to protect the interests of the workers in the mining industry and this we shall. In this regard my government will carry out an extensive review of the rationale behind the mines resorting to reduce their workforce whenever government initiates policy for the Zambian people to benefit from the mining sector.”
On increase of salaries while overlooking workers, Vice-President Wina said if this was related to the issue of ministers: “it so just happened that ministers were enjoying motor vehicle allowance.”
“It was paid in kind and the vehicles that were given to ministers were recovered so that they can be paid an allowance which will cover fuel allowance and the like. But now the President has directed that motor vehicles should be withdrawn as from January 1st ,” she explained.
Vice-President Wina said the government wanted to see more productivity from the workers because they were the ones that kept the engines of the economy moving.
She said the government was making every effort to consolidate Zambia’s democracy.
“My government wishes to reaffirm the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law as we promote the efficient discharge of duty by the executive and the legislative wing of government,” said Vice-President Wina.