Thinking out loud: Labour day – Politically noisy!

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Preident Edgar Lungu with Labour Minister Fackson Shamenda during Labour Day celebrations

Preident Edgar Lungu with Labour Minister Fackson Shamenda during Labour Day celebrations

By Yona Musukwa

When workers demanded better working conditions in 1886, it marked a turning point in the struggle for better social economic conditions. We celebrate this day as Labour Day, a day dedicated to workers. This day has its origin in the labour union movement.

130 years later, the social economic problems are not yet over!

In Zambia, we commemorated this historical day yesterday. As always, under a “noisy” theme: “achieving national development through productive decent work, sustainable job creation and social justice”.

Simply convened by a calendar, the day was marked, as we have done over the years with Government and labour movement officials officiating with rhetoric and platitudes about pseudo labour policies, job creation, and trite remarks on decent work and social justice whilst ignoring the status quo: hard economic times, high indebtedness, difficult working conditions, job insecurity, high taxation, low wages etc.

It’s very unfortunate that the incorporation of important days in our national calendar as public holidays often results in the ritualization and hollowing out of their significance and meaning. Politicians hijacked the occasion to make rhetorical commitments and declarations; without a bold and detailed statement of clear intent. Whatever they said, was another fancy way of saying nothing; merely speaking English, under the guise of policy. To them, policy is like a football, something to be kicked around for political gain. And so, as the saying goes, old habits die hard!

This is well captured In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth where we are reminded that “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

But the Labour Day’s significance and meaning should begin to find practical expression in the programmes and politics of our Trade Unions in particular and Zambia in general. Its struggles are essentially about the immediate improvement of the working and living conditions of its members. Its history is more than enough proof that theirs is never a sectarian struggle only for increasing wages and improving conditions for the working class but a struggle to advance the interests of society as a whole and liberate human beings from all forms of injustice.

It’s on that basis that trade unions played a significant role in Zambia’s struggle for independence. It is noteworthy that the first African mine-workers disturbance and strike in Luanshya in 1935 was about the increase in poll tax. The strike was aimed more at the colonial administration than the mining companies. When the one party dictatorship started unfolding trade unionists were in the thick of things, fighting the emerging dictatorial tendencies. Unionists like Robinson Puta Chekwe were honoured as gallant soldiers in the struggle for independence, but condemned in post-colonial Zambia for championing the same political causes. They identified themselves with the cause for social justice.

Unlike in the past, the current trade unions and its leadership do not inspire confidence. In fact they make a sorry and sad reflection of the true historical character of Zambia’s labour movement’s steadfastness. They are too narrowly focussed and conspicuously missing in providing leadership on important questions.

It is now a well-established fact that Zambia is in the vicious grip of grotesque inequalities, mass unemployment, national poverty, job shedding, runaway inflation and social injustice. It is impossible to genuinely celebrate “labour Day” without a national dialogue on how to resolve these challenges.

The trade unions are at their weakest, no one takes them seriously and as such they have failed to make much impact on government policies. Even their bargaining strength is undermined.

What is to be done? Firstly trade unions must represent the needs and aspirations of all Zambians. They have to become a union of activists. They must lead with the people on the ground. That is where the people need them to be. Labour Day must not be reduced to conducting marches and speeches.

Lastly, today I take the opportunity to salute many of our unsung heroes and heroines who volunteered their lives in the cause for workers struggle and liberation. Through them we remember the role of trade unions in advancing the people’s wagon.

The message is simple: #Workers&UnemployedUnite!


2 Responses to Thinking out loud: Labour day – Politically noisy!

  1. well written article !

    May 3, 2016 at 4:44 am

  2. Well said. our trade unions are dead.

    May 3, 2016 at 9:35 pm

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