DESPERATE to contain its disgruntled workforce, government has mastered the art of exploiting the divisions among unions in order to keep them on a tight leash.
Despite teachers constituting the largest constituency in the public service, they have been easily manipulated by government.
Before independence in 1980, teachers used to be idolized in society because of their status.
But the past three decades have seen the erosion of their status in society, with the majority of them trapped in the ranks of poverty.
Their numerical advantage has not translated into anything meaningful in terms of their conditions of service and salaries.
Their salaries have remained poor compared to their colleagues in private schools. Very few of them earn above the breadline, estimated at about US$540.
Their workload is also heavier compared to other government workers and not in tandem with their conditions of service.
As such, the profession continues to suffer massive brain drain as teachers flock outside the country’s borders in search of better paying jobs.
Between 2000 and 2010 alone, the profession lost more than 45 000 teachers. The majority of them ended up in South Africa, Zimbabwe’s southern neighbour.
Analysts say teachers have none but themselves to blame for the obtaining situation.
Unlike other professions that speak with one voice in their engagement with government, teachers often work at cross purposes due to sharp divisions.
And yet they are the single largest constituency in the civil service.
There are three main associations representing teachers in government namely the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), the Zimbabwe Teachers Association (ZIMTA) and Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (TUZ).
Of these three, PTUZ tends to be militant in its approach, while ZIMTA and TUZ favour diplomacy centred on dialogue.
Whenever there has been a stalemate in their negotiations with government, PTUZ has not hesitated calling on its members to down tools. Because the other unions are more inclined towards dialogue, PTUZ’s strike calls have been rendered futile.
The divisions have therefore favoured their employer more than the teachers in the sense that government has been able to buy time.
PTUZ secretary general, Raymond Majongwe, is adamant that politicians have infiltrated the unions.
“At some meetings you see some union members clad in party regalia and you wonder whose interests they are serving,” he said.
Government, according to Majongwe, has picked out the weakness in ideology between the pacifist and militant unions and has been manipulating them to its advantage.
All the while the plight of the civil servants remains unaddressed.
“ZIMTA and TUZ have on many occasions accused PTUZ of harbouring political machinations and working hand in glove with former vice president, Joice Mujuru. We speak the language of the people whereas others are mouthpieces of the government. They avoid strikes saying workers don’t want to strike whereas everyone knows that the conditions of service are poor and workers want them addressed,” said Majongwe.
Mujuru has been President Robert Mugabe’s second in command between 2004 and last year.
She was removed from her position in both government and ZANU-PF last December on allegations of working against her boss.
To the contrary, PTUZ is actually seen more as aligned to the opposition parties, particularly the main Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai while the other associations are said to be embedded in ZANU-PF.
While admitting that they were not singing from the same hymn book with other trade unions, Sifiso Ndlovu, ZIMTA chief executive officer, blamed it on “political demagogues and economic refugees” masquerading as representatives of the people.
“It is difficult for straight edge organisation like ZIMTA to work with unions without a clear cut vision. ZIMTA believes in consultation and will only resort to confrontation when all the avenues of dialogue have been exhausted,” said Ndlovu.
While their objective is to represent teachers and collaborate in pushing for a harmonised agenda, the unions have been at each other throats on countless occasions.
They divisions are not just restricted to matters of style and approach, but ideology as well.
Issues that have divided them include, but not limited to whether teachers should go on strike; the salary threshold they should bargain for; payment of teachers’ incentives and the constitution of the Apex Council, the public servants’ umbrella body.
In the past, government has been hiding behind sanctions and non-remittance of revenue from Chiadzwa diamonds to duck teachers’ demands for salary increases. But for the first time in as many years, government is now blaming the divisions among the unions for stalling negotiations.
Last year, government said it wanted the Apex Council to be properly constituted before it could engage its employees.
This has led to the perception that it could be the one sponsoring the divisions in order to weaken the unions’ bargaining power.
Examples pointing to this are many.
Members of militant unions such as PTUZ and the College Lecturers Association of Zimbabwe believe that the other unions get government support and that their members have been given pieces of land to build houses, a favour that is not extended to them.
Government has also been accused of ensuring that those occupying the top echelons of power in the Apex Council are from the unions with a bias towards government.
Richard Gundani, the Apex Council’s chairperson is from ZIMTA; secretary general Manuel Nyawo is from TUZ and Cecilia Alexander hails from the Public Service Commission.
This arrangement seems to have been tailor made to thwart efforts from militant groups to push the government into action.
None of the unions, however, accept being appendages of political parties tussling for power in Zimbabwe.
“We are effective strategists; we raise our own monies and do not beg for money from embassies like we see some unions doing. How can we be funded by a government that is failing to fund its operations?” Ndlovu said.
With accusations flying from left, right and centre, there doesn’t seem to be any immediate solution to the divisions.
This obviously comes as a relief to government, which is desperate for solutions to nurse the country’s ailing economy.