Elita Chikwati Senior Reporter
In tears, Rickson Zuze narrates the agony of waiting for his money for a whole month camped outside the Grain Marketing Board’s Dura House premises in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. As he tries to fight back the tears, he receives a text message from his wife back home in Mhondoro notifying him that the family, including her three children, slept on empty stomachs the previous night and he needed to act swiftly.
He breaks down again. He has been away from home for a month now and the call from his wife is one of many he receives each week. Mr Zuze is one of the former GMB workers who were dismissed on three months notice following a Supreme Court ruling on JUly 17 last year on job terminations.
Prior to dismissal, they had gone for 10 months without receiving their salaries. The affected workers from 89 depots that include Zhombe, Karoi, Chinhoyi and Harare, now stay at the GMB head office vowing to continue their protest until they get their money in full.
They have turned into “squatters” and set up tents. They cook using firewood and do their laundry at the premises. They hang their laundry on the security fence around Dura House. The GMB head office has become home to the desperate and determined former employees.
Mr Zuze, who was sent packing after working for 14 years for the parastatal, said the family unit had also come under threat because of the situation. There are fears among the affected workers that their spouses might engage in extra-marital affairs, especially women who were left home and do not have money to feed their families.
Staying at Dura House is their last plea for help and no one seems to be listening, at least for now. “I am here because of desperation. I cannot stay home when the landlord wants his money. I am sacrificing myself, living under harsh conditions so I can get my money and fend for my children,” Zuze said.
“I have three children and as any other parent, I know the importance of educating my children. I know it is their right to get decent education, but because of my situation, I have failed in my duty. “I am the breadwinner and I do not know where my wife and children back home are getting food from,” he said.
Another former worker, Mrs Rosemary Mazungunye, comes from Rusape and has been staying in a tent for the past 24 days.
“I am a normal person, but living as a destitute waiting for the promised money. Waking up in the morning I do not look forward to a decent breakfast. I wake up with no clue of what I will eat during the day,” Mrs Mazungunye.
“The situation has forced all the affected people from different districts to unite. We have been united by the same cause and we share food. If one has bread we share it so everyone can get something. Some well-wishers give us food. It has become common for many of us to share a plate of sadza and sometimes we make do with water only,” she said.
“I have a bed back home, but I endure sleeping on the cardboard box,” she said.
Even the rains have not deterred them, they have stayed put. The rains are a blessing to people with shelter. I have endured heavy rains here waiting for my money,” she said. Mrs Mazungunye said staying at the GMB was hard especially for a woman as the place did not have proper sanitary facilities.
The situation becomes complex when the women menstruate.
Mrs Mazungunye said a well-wisher allowed them to use a bathroom at his house near GMB and that is where most of them bathe. “I worry about my children back home. I always pray that they are safe. It is not easy to leave children in the care of someone else.”
Some of the women said they were afraid their children could be abused during their absence. They said they felt Government had let them down by not providing funds for their salaries.
“We are aware GMB is not making profits, but why can’t Treasury release the $4,1 million owed to farmers?” said the workers. “We are saddened that the remaining workers still get their salaries and allowances.
“The bosses are sending their children to expensive schools. They have allowances for fees, groceries and airtime while our children are no longer attending school,” they said. “Why can’t GMB as an employer strike a balance between the employed and us who were relieved of our duties?
“We are not demanding aid, but we worked for the company and we have the right to get our money,” said one former employee, Mrs Molly Gande. She stays in Harare, but has also camped at GMB headquarters in solidarity with fellow workers. The workers called on Government to intervene and address their plight.
“If it was Government’s will to retrench us then why is it taking long to release our money? GMB supplies supermarkets with maize meal, so where is the money going?” Mrs Gande asked.
The employees alleged that some of the retrenched workers had since received all their money especially those who were strategically positioned. Mr Masimba Tongo said the non-payment of outstanding salaries by GMB had emotionally and psychologically affected him. “Government should be concerned with the reason why we are here. People have become so heartless and it is disturbing,” he said.
“What is the responsible ministry doing about our situation? Society has become so cruel no one cares,” he said. GMB has failed to pay farmers on time. The parastatal relies on Treasury for funding and will only pay farmers after the release of funds by Government.
Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Minister Dr Joseph Made recently told parliamentarians that the GMB management was seized with the matter. He, however, could not specify when the former workers would be paid.
“Management has been instructed to handle that matter because it was not responding to the workers. So, the matter is being dealt with. It involves financial resources. I cannot answer that.
“The matter is very specific; it involves payment that is due to the workers. It depends on when the resources are mobilised,” Minister Made recently said.