The Zambian government has proposed amendments to the country’s labor laws with a view to ending the perceived exploitation of workers – especially by foreign companies – and banning casualization.
“This will not only prevent exploitative practices, but will also ensure decent work and will give workers the right to speak against injustices in workplaces,” Labor and Social Security Minister Fackson Shamenda told Anadolu Agency in an exclusive interview.
Shamenda said the government is proposing amendments to the Labor Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act to ensure adequate protection to vulnerable employees, including compliance with Zambia’s obligations in terms of international labor standards.
The amendments will ensure that labor laws give effect to fundamental constitutional rights, including the right to fair labor practices, to engage in collective bargaining and right to equality and protection from discrimination.
The minister said additional amendments are envisaged to ensure that casualization is either outlawed completely or limited to genuine temporary work that does not exceed six months.
He regretted that, for a long time now, many companies had been hiring workers on short-term contracts, leaving them to strive to fulfill production quotas without maternity or sick leaves.
“Everything began with their employment policy, which allows companies to employ people on short-term contracts, whereas workers are forced to sign contracts where they declare they are working at their own risk,” said Shamenda.
“When these workers get injured, the companies will not compensate… victims of accidents will lose out,” he noted.
The minister said the amended law would restrict the use of fixed-term employment and require that workers receive equal benefits as those granted to permanent employees.
“Once in force, these amendments will do away with casualization. Employers found entertaining it [i.e., engaging in the practice] will be penalized,” he asserted.
Under current laws, anyone employed by a firm for more than six months automatically becomes a permanent employee entitled to medical benefits and housing and transport allowances. Employers, however, often sack workers before the minimum six months of employment is completed.
The proposed amendments are already before parliament, the activities of which were disrupted on Tuesday by the death of president Michael Sata.
Shamenda, however, says Sata’s death will not change the government’s position on the amendments, which, he asserted, had been tabled in the best interest of the people of Zambia.
The Zambian government on Wednesday officially confirmed Sata’s death in London one day earlier, naming Vice-President Guy Scot as acting president for a 90-day period, during which presidential elections will be held.
Lawmakers are expected to resume discussions on the proposed amendments to the labor law when parliament reconvenes following Sata’s funeral.
Parliament’s current mandate will end in 2016, when fresh elections will be called.
Shamenda cited official corruption as the main reason why foreign firms continued to flout existing labor laws.
“To check corruption, the department decided to send officials from various departments to randomly inspect a number of businesses,” he told AA.
“Some 75 percent of the companies inspected were found wanting in terms of underpaying employees,” the minister said.
He went on to note that the proposed amendments would also introduce major changes to the operations of Zambia’s Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and Labor Court.
According to Shamenda, the authority of the Labor Court would be expanded to give it exclusive jurisdiction to settle disputes involving the interpretation of employment laws; the termination of contracts; and constitutional issues arising from employment relations.
“In part, the proposed amendments are intended to prevent employees from approaching the High Court,” he explained. “The amendment will give wide powers to the Labor Court.”
Shamenda reassured interested parties that the proposed amendments would reflect the views of trade unions, which have long wanted the country to beef up enforcement of its employment laws.
The move to amend Zambia’s labor laws was cheered by Lenard Hikaumba, president of the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions.
“Although the proposed amendments seem a little exaggerated, we are happy because the government has shown a commitment to protecting the rights of workers,” he told AA.
‘”In fact, the proposed amendments are long overdue,” said Hikaumba.
While conceding that the casualization of labor was a problem, he nevertheless feels criminalizing the practice is going to far.
Such a step, he fears, would only contribute to the country’s already high unemployment rates.
Joyce Nonde, president of the Federation of Free Trade Unions, however, disagrees.
“The proposed amendments are good insofar as they were designed to protect vulnerable workers,” she told AA. “Breaches of the law should not be condoned.