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ECONOMY-ZIMBABWE: Consumers May be Happy But Workers Aren’t

Ignatius Banda

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, Nov 22 2010 (IPS) - South African retail giant Pick-‘n-Pay increased its stake from 25 to 49 percent in TM Supermarkets – Zimbabwe’s largest grocer – in October in a deal worth about 13 million dollars. But, while the champagne corks pop in the boardroom, employees are not upbeat.

A Shoprite store in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe: one among the many that the retail chain owns in some 15 African countries outside South Africa. Credit: Ignatius Banda/IPS

A Shoprite store in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe: one among the many that the retail chain owns in some 15 African countries outside South Africa. Credit: Ignatius Banda/IPS

Companies investing in Zimbabwe have been met head-on with demands for salaries that are above Zimbabwe’s poverty datum line of 462 dollars per month for a family of five, as calculated by the Zimbabwe National Statistical Agency.

While the Zimbabwean government welcomes South African retail giants’ investments as “employment creation vehicles”, shop assistants and floor managers working for these companies say these investments are tainted by unfair employment conditions and labour practices.

In 2009, Shoprite employees in Bulawayo – Zimbabwe’s second largest city and home to the only Shoprite outlet in the country – went on strike demanding salary increases.

Earlier in November a former manager at Makro retailers won a suit against his erstwhile employer for unfair dismissal dating back to 2005.

A retailer such as Shoprite, with stores in 15 African countries outside South Africa, has provided Zimbabwean consumers with fully stocked shelves and squeaky-clean aisles during the country’s slow economic recuperation.

However, its hiring of Zimbabwean workers has not been characterised by competitive salaries, workers who spoke to IPS say.

“Many of us imagined that working for a South African company would mean salaries better than workers in other supermarkets but we had to face the facts,” exclaims Duduzile Moyo*, a Shoprite shop assistant.

“It is difficult to live on this salary, especially when you know that a person doing the same job in South Africa can survive on their salary,” Moyo says, expressing a common sentiment here among employees working for South African firms based in Zimbabwe.

The average salary for a shop assistant in Zimbabwe is 150 dollars, while remuneration for the same job reportedly stands at about 500 dollars in South Africa.

This discrepancy has employees here pushing for salaries that meet regional standards, or at least those of the country from where these grocery retailers originate.

A shop assistant in Bulawayo needs about 100 dollars to cover transport and housing per month, compared with the 150 dollars they earn.

“There is no (adherence to) best practice here. We are happy to have jobs because of these South Africans, but that is where it ends for me because I still work long hours for low wages,” Gill Dube*, a shop assistant at TM, points out.

With Pick-‘n-Pay’s recent investment the company promised to inject new capital into TM Supermarkets and to do much needed refurbishment, including new fittings, generators and point of sale equipment.

Casual and permanent employees who spoke to IPS however noted that nothing was mentioned about improving their working conditions, ensuring fair labour practices and paying them a living wage.

It has been particularly tough for casual workers who complain they have little or no protection when facing dismissal. Their contracts can be terminated without warning and they also do not enjoy benefits such as medical aid.

“There is no pension for casual workers so, if your contract is terminated, that is it. You are just as good as someone who never worked,” Dube laments.

Economist Bernard Guruve says, “it is a difficult line that these South African investors have to walk as their employees expect to be paid the equivalent of what their colleagues are getting in South Africa but Zimbabwe offers a difficult and also different macro-economic interpretation.

“While the economy itself is stabilising, companies find they still cannot match salary demands that meet the poverty datum line — despite doing relatively well both here and in the countries where they are headquartered,” Guruve adds.

Many Zimbabwean consumers contend that the presence of South African grocery retailers has given them an opportunity to not only sample South African products that are cheaper, but that these retailers offer shoppers choices that had disappeared during the country’s recent past of price controls.

“We are happy these South Africans have been allowed to come in as things like chicken coming from South Africa are cheap,” insists Duke Banda, a secondary school teacher.

“We now get anything from shops like Shoprite that we cannot get in other supermarkets, which I think is a positive thing — for consumers who have the money,” Banda adds with some circumspection.

However, local poultry producers have complained, saying they are being pushed out of business by cheap South African imports. They continue to lobby the government to ban the importation of certain goods, which include genetically modified products.

*Names withheld due to fear of reprisal.

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