The Zimbabwe Energy Workers Union, which represents the rank and file at Zesa, has a serious pay dispute with Zesa.
This is not unexpected. Zesa is owed large sums of money by its customers, partly because it does not push many to pay and partly because it assumes through its estimates system that many customers have used more energy than their meters have recorded.
In any case, the Zesa tariffs, set by an independent body, assumes that labour costs will not exceed a particular figure.
So as a result of these two problems, Zesa struggles to meet its present payroll and probably needs a tariff adjustment to meet any significant pay increase for the
7 000 staff in grades represented by the union.
Unfortunately both Zesa and the union have managed the dispute very badly.
First the matter was discussed at the relevant national employment council. Final agreement was impossible, so the dispute went to arbitration. The arbitrator found the old minimum of US$190 a month very low and so ruled in favour of the NEC provisional agreement, which set the minimum at US$275 a month.
So far everything is in accordance with the rules. Zesa management felt it could not afford the pay rise so it wants an exemption.
This is pushing matters. Such an application is quite legal and within the rules, but is not really solving anything.
We could support the Zesa management if they sought both a tariff rise, to cover the higher labour costs, and sought an exemption over back pay because that tariff rise could not be backdated.
We could support Zesa if the company would produce accurate invoices, based on actual readings not grossly inflated estimates, and pushed its customers to meet these actual costs and pay up promptly, so there was some liquid cash to start paying staff while the tariff was renegotiated to make the new scales sustainable.
What we cannot support is Zesa trying to welsh on what appears to be the result of a lengthy negotiating process that has produced something reasonable for the non-managerial staff although almost certainly needing a modest rise in tariffs to be affordable, along with the rapid introduction of pre-paid meters for residential consumers and more activity in collecting actual rather than estimated debt.
The union is no better. It gave a 72-hour ultimatum of a strike. The actual period of notice is 14 days for a start.
It seems weird that the union, after following the letter of the law for so long, suddenly decides to throw away its moral high ground.
Other solutions to the problem would be an urgent court application seeking a mandamus order to force Zesa to fulfil its own bargain. Speedy legal action would also avoid the complications of threatened strikes in essential industries.
But besides giving notice of a strike, the union then went completely mad.
It threatened to instruct its members to “switch off” Zimbabwe before striking. Now we move into serious criminal activity.
The law, and natural reason, are both quite clear. Workers have a right to withhold labour. Slavery was abolished a long time ago.
Striking workers who fail to meet all conditions for a strike can face civil penalties, but the worst that can happen is dismissal; they do not face criminal penalties.
But any employee of any business who goes further and tries to sabotage that business faces criminal liability.
This can be any sabotage action, from a striking sweeper hiding his broom upwards.
At the top of the scale is doing what the energy workers union has threatened, deliberately sabotaging an essential service.
We are curious whether the union has told its members of the risk involved, in economic sabotage which is serious in its own right and in interfering in the electricity supply, which carries a minimum jail term of 10 years.
We cannot comprehend why a union would wish to expose its members to such risks.
We do understand the workers frustration; many Zesa customers share the same frustration with Zesa management.
We could understand if the union, in an effort to bring everything into the open and generate a sense of urgency, had given the requisite 14-day notice of a strike.
This is despite our opinion that the strike weapon in Zimbabwe is seriously blunted because no union has a strike fund, to support striking members; managements can simply starve strikers back to work quite quickly since strikers are not paid.
This is why we think using the labour law fully is a better option, especially when, like the Zesa workers, the union occupied the high moral and legal ground. But that high moral and legal ground is totally lost if union leaders encourage their members to commit serious criminal offences.
Once again the Government will probably have to intervene, making it clear to the union that the laws must be obeyed, but making it equally clear to the Zesa
management that it cannot use legal tricks to circumvent an agreement and must start using the laid-down processes to generate the extra revenue required to
meet its obligations. But it does seem a serious indictment on the whole of Zesa that both management and the union appear to have gone off their collective rockers.