With the imminent implementation of the pilot of the Special Economic Zones in Zimbabwe, the trade unions in the country are concerned about the high number of occupational health and safety cases. Special Economic Zones the world over are notorious for disregarding workers’ rights, including health and safety.
Zimbabwe is to address unacceptably high numbers of occupational accidents which situation has been ignored since the country’s industrial utilization fell below capacity, as low as 35%.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Labour, more than 400 workers have lost their lives through workplace accidents while more than 2,000 others were injured in the past three years, a development which prompted the Zimbabwean government, through the Ministry of Labour and Social Services, to launch the Vision Zero program aimed at coming up with systems that would help reduce the calamity.
This data, however, could be understated as it excludes workers in the country’s informal sector, which has become the biggest employer in a nation where less than 15% of the economically active population is formally employed.
The introduction of the program was applauded by workers, as it will keep employers under check by ensuring that they adhere to health and safety standards at the workplace.
However, the program seems to have been blighted by the government’s intended introduction of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), which come with investor incentives that put the lives of workers at risk.
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) which is the largest labour umbrella body in the country described the creation of SEZs as trading workers’ lives, arguing that the government was trying to attract investors by introducing lax labour laws that exposed employees to hazardous working conditions. ZCTU Head of Health and Safety, Nathaniel Banda, said it was important for the government to ensure that the health and safety of workers was not compromised if the Zero Tolerance program was to be a success.
“The moment the Labour Act does not apply in the Special Economic Zones we will have serious problems as it will have an impact on the number of occupational accidents,” he said.
Banda said Zimbabwe had recorded more almost 4,500 workplace during the period January to October 2017, with almost 50 casualties. “Already we are sitting on 4,472 accidents and 48 fatalities up to October this year and you can now imagine what would happen if they (SEZs) are exempted from monitoring of Occupational Health and Safety standards; it will be disastrous,” he said.
ZCTU President, Peter Mutasa, said the government, through the introduction of the SEZs, was sacrificing the lives of workers in a bid to lure foreign investors.
“The National Social Security Authority (NSSA) must stamp its authority on issues relating workers’ safety and health and not sell the lives of workers to investors and the government. We demand that the zones be governed by the same laws that govern all other workplaces,” he said.
He said Occupational Health and Safety must be prioritized in the government budget as it was a matter of life and death.
“In our quest to attract investment, we have relaxed our labour laws thereby exposing workers, which will contribute to the carnage we witness at workplaces and defeat the Zero Tolerance program objectives,” he said.