The ruling, delivered last Friday, said employers could terminate workers’ contracts after giving them three months notice without offering any explanation or taking the retrenchment route. Government had to convene an urgent meeting on Tuesday with various stakeholders, where workers proposed that presidential powers be invoked to protect them.
The minister of public service, labour and social welfare, Prisca Mupfumira, said they had been informed that more than 700 workers had been affected by the ruling, a number that had since shot up to more than 1 200. She said it was not proper for employers to suddenly terminate contracts of employees without benefits, especially when they had served the respective companies for several years. She said the government would take proper action and hoped to find a win-win solution.
The minister told Parliament on Wednesday that the government was looking into labour legislation to ensure that the rights of both employers and employees were protected. She said the recent judgment was being reviewed by the Attorney-General and other legal bodies in government, and remedial action would be taken.
The secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Japhet Moyo, described the judgment as tantamount to turning the country’s workforce into temporary workers. He said the congress had urged the government to invoke Section 17 of the Labour Act, which allows the minister of labour “to determine the relationship between the employer and the employee”.
Another of the country’s labour bodies, the Zimbabwe Labour Centre (ZLC), tore into the court ruling, saying it relegated gains labour movements had made so far.
“Arbitrary powers of the Colonial Master and Servant Act have been brought back, and employers can hire and fire at will. This judgment has opened gates for the workers to be hired on cheap wages and also dismissed cheaply and go empty-handed without payment of packages like retrenchment,” ZLC said.
The organisation added that maternity leave could also come under attack as pregnant women could be given a notice of termination instead of the employer having to pay maternity leave benefits. ZLC described the ruling as madness and called for urgent action to stop it. “All those who have had their contracts terminated because of this judgment must be reinstated or retrenched with proper retrenchment packages,” it added.
Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku and four other judges, sitting as the Supreme Court bench, last Friday unanimously agreed that the common law position placing employees and employers on an equal footing was still operational. This came after two former Zuva Petroleum managers, Don Nyamande and Kingstone Donga, challenged termination of their contracts on this principle.
On Wednesday, Zimoco, official distributors of luxury vehicles such as Jeep, Mercedes-Benz, Dodge, Chrysler and GWM, was reported to have sent a number of employees packing. Sino-Zimbabwe, a Chinese-Zimbabwe company, was said to have locked out about 500 of its employees that same morning.
Other companies reported to have taken advantage of the ruling include Croco Motors and furniture dealers TN Harlequin Luxaire and Pelhams. Pelhams is said to have grabbed a golden opportunity to send home 110 workers despite owing them 18 months in salaries, while TN Harlequin Luxaire has apparently dismissed almost all its workforce.
The current dismissals follow a wave of job losses in the last few years, which have reportedly seen more than 4 610 companies filing for liquidation or closing shop. Zimbabwe’s finance minister Patrick Chinamasa said in a mid-term monetary policy statement last year that the closure of companies had resulted in more than 55 443 people losing their jobs.