THE Tripartite Negotiating Forum (TNF) was legislated in June last year amid pomp and fanfare. However, there have been concerns over the glacial pace at which the forum is operating. Among the concerned parties are the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which has been instrumental in providing assistance to the negotiating platform. Business reporter Kudzai Kuwaza (KK) caught up with the ILO’s country director for Zimbabwe and Namibia, Hopolang Phororo (HP), at the tail end of last year to discuss this issue, Zimbabwe’s economic challenges and the outlook for 2020, among others. Below are excerpts:

KK: How would you describe 2019?

HP: I would probably start off by saying that for ILO generally, 2019 has been an interesting year simply because we were celebrating 100 years of ILO’s existence. I think it gave us a good opportunity to reflect on the past 100 years. It also gave us a good opportunity to begin to look forward to see how the world of work will change in the next 100 years. At the global level we had a launch of a report at the ILO conference by the commission on the future of work was at the beginning of the year. Then it also cascaded to where we had an activity in Durban (South Africa) with the African Regional Labour Administration Centre (ALAC) institution which we are working with here in Zimbabwe. Then we also had the Centenary Declaration which was adopted at the ILO conference which I think was a big milestone. The last event of the year was our African regional meeting which was held in Abidjan (Ivory Coast).

We took our tripartite constituents and the good thing that came out of that meeting was the Abidjan Declaration which was mapping out how we would like to see Africa moving forward in the next four years in the world of work. The process is now to come up with an implementation plan which will guide it. So at global, continental and regional level there have been those developments simply because it was such an important year for us.

KK: How about in Zimbabwe?

HP: In the country office here in Zimbabwe, we also want to make sure that our world of work issues are also understood, appreciated and are more visible under the umbrella, Fast Forward: The Future of Work. We had a youth dialogue in July. It was really interesting getting the young people to talk about how they perceive the future of work. We also had an arts competition looking at how the future of work will look like in a green economy.

I think it is about recognising that the future of work is likely to change but the changes we can foresee differ from country to country.

KK: You have talked about how the year has been internationally and regionally. How has the year been in the Zimbabwean context?

HP: It has been a difficult year. I think it has been difficult in terms of our programme because we are trying to look at issues around employment creation in Zimbabwe. One of our main projects is how to generate jobs for young people and women, who are greatly disadvantaged.

What we have seen is that we are in an environment where there are a number of challenges that we are facing. We are talking of slow growth where you are facing high costs in terms of fuel, high costs in terms of power. How does one operate in an environment like that? We also know that there has been a number of retrenchments in the economy. The statistics which we have from the Ministry of Labour, when you look at them they may seem quite low, but I think the point is that over the years instead of jobs being created we have seen a number of jobs being lost.

So that poses a challenge, of course, in terms of where do all these young people, educated and graduated in college, end up? That I think is an issue as they will inevitably end up in the informal economy where most of them are not so much people trying to make a quick buck, but it is more about survival. The issue is that once people are out of jobs the labour market is going to be pressurised and this means workers and employers are talking to each other. I think their issues have become very relevant.

You look at issues such as hyperinflation. People are getting poorer and this impacts on the spending abilities of people in an economy. If you do not have a job, then you cannot spend and, if you cannot spend, then things cannot be bought. This perpetuates into a cycle in which the economy does not do very well.

KK: What other aspects of work do you focus on beside employment generation?

HP: The other aspect of work which we do here at the ILO is looking at the issue of social dialogue and we are saying: how do we talk about some of the issues affecting the economy? One of the highlights we have had this year was the legislation of the TNF. That means we now have a body which is recognised and legislated where the discussions held by government, workers and employers should bear fruit.

KK: That leads me to my next question. Are you happy with the progress made on the platform since its legislation?

HP: I think the progress has been slow. The body was legislated in June and come six months later, we have had, where I am familiar, one TNF meeting in which the principals are involved. I think that is a bit slow. I do understand the issues they had to handle. People had to be nominated into various clusters, which I understand in terms of processes. But I think if we are going to make this body stand up with credibility, we need to work much faster.

This is so especially considering the situation of the country with the economic and social challenges it faces. If it does not begin to work quickly, people will begin to question its efficiency and its effectiveness. I think that all parties have to work together to get this body working. At the launch, there seemed to be a commitment by all parties to make it work.

I think that the TNF is a body that has to be recognised more widely in the country. I sometimes get a bit concerned with the so many different dialogue platforms that are being established. If there are so many other dialogue platforms being created and yet you have the legislated TNF bodies, then we have to make sure that it is not undermined. Let me give you a good example. In the past year we had so many statutory instruments promulgated in the country.

The issue that bothers us is that these discussions do not go to the TNF at a time we are trying to carve out a common vision for the country to move in one direction. If people understand where the decisions that are taken by government are coming from, even if they are difficult ones, then they are ready to go with you. But if they wake up in the morning, this is there, then tomorrow another one, people begin to question: Where are we going? We do not know.

They are working in the dark. So the TNF provides the platform for that. We as ILO would really like to see that platform being utilised to the maximum.

Even as we sit with our United Nations partners, we are looking at how we can encourage and raise awareness to understand the power and effectiveness that is there in the TNF. It has worked in other countries such as South Africa and it can work here. The question is: how do we get it operating?

KK: How have the economic challenges affected negotiations among the tripartite partners?

HP: One area of work of the ILO is looking at some of the conventions. Conventions 87 and 98 are about collective bargaining and the right to strike. These are elements embedded in the constitution of Zimbabwe. I believe when the economy is not doing well, people will want to express their concerns, express their dissatisfaction and therefore labour will go out there and want to protest. I think this is a sign that if they are not going to be able to negotiate then they will have to let them know one way or another that they are not happy with the situation.

So what you have seen, are teachers wanting to protest, you have seen health workers protesting and also civil servants wanting to protest. I think it is a sign that people are sending a message that the economy is not doing well which at the end of the day, it is not. They should be given an opportunity to express themselves without having to do it in fear. We then see how we can bring these issues to the TNF because that is the platform. The protesting and expression of concerns happens everywhere and I think people should be allowed to express their views.

KK: Do you expect progress on the TNF front in 2020?

HP: I would like to optimistically believe that there will be progress because as you know the situation is that this year we have not seen growth in the economy. Now if we want to see some change, something has to be done a little bit differently. I think what we should do is to give the TNF a chance.

As ILO we are standing by the tripartite constituents, ready to avail whatever technical support to get the process moving. In my discussions, I have had the commitment of government, employers and even the workers saying we need to move. But what has happened is that the pace has to be a little faster and I believe that they are anticipating a meeting in January which was supposed to be held earlier but could not be held. It is about maintaining the momentum. It is not about having a meeting in January and wait another six months. It must be an ongoing discussion.

I believe that it is one thing that needs to continue and we need to move at a faster pace, to give it a chance. We have not given it a chance to see whether dialogue can happen. If we had moved quickly and it was not working, then that is another story we would have to deal with. The fact, however, is that we have not even gone that far. So we need to give it a chance.

KK: Looking at decent work, how can this concept be improved in Zimbabwe?

HP: I think one of the things when you talk about decent work, you are talking about making people’s working conditions better and how people can be able to dialogue on these issues. Given the current situation, there are many deficits of decent work. One of the points which I mentioned earlier is that of the informal economy.

The informal economy is a big sector out there. Sometimes when one looks at the sector, they look at it with an element of a negative attitude, which is wrong. I believe that these are the same who are allowing this economy to keep moving. We need to recognise the importance of the informal economy and this is one area which we as.

ILO are working on. We have started and will continue in the new year to understand first of all what is that informal economy, what does it comprise of and how then we can help that sector to be more productive? Because, right now, it is not producing at the highest levels. We must not look at it as a sector where we can go and look for taxes, but how to improve their working conditions.

KK: What are your expectations in 2020?

HP: The year 2019 has been tough and I am hoping 2020 will be better. I am really hoping is to see the TNF working because we believe that when people talk, it helps. It is not going to solve all the problems but it helps move issues. We must get us talking on the same page.

Source: African News Agency