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Zimbabwe Industry Leader Says Proposed Labor Reforms Would Curb Growth

The controversial proposed amendments to Zimbabwe's Labor Act include an expansion of the right to strike, up to one year of paid study leave, a six-week limit to contract work and sick leave of up to six months

Zimbabwean businesses say proposed labor law reforms expanding the rights of workers would put a brake on a still recovering and fragile economy in which many firms are struggling to survive.

Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries President Joseph Kanyekanye said Monday that proposed amendments to the Labor Act will put a heavy burden on companies. The changes include an expanded right to strike, up to one year of paid study leave, a six-week limit to contract work and sick leave of up to six months.

Kanyekanye said Zimbabwe cannot afford first-world labor provisions as its economy painfully works its way back from a decade of economic decline related to the country's extended political crisis.

"Industry is recovering but very slowly," Kanyekanye said. "The recovery that is taking place now is nowhere what we envisaged" when the September 2008 Global Political Agreement for power sharing was signed. The economic lift based on optimism about the unity government formed in 2009 has failed to gather strength, in large part due to chronic government infighting which has discouraged donor support and foreign direct investment.

"It's not going at the pace that we wanted," Kanyekanye said. "We had expected at least double-digit growth and certainly last year some of us were quite optimistic that [gross domestic product] would at least exceed US10 billion and we would build on that momentum."

His organization maintains that the proposed Labor Act amendments are tilted toward workers and will stifle business activity. "Inadvertently architects of such a scheme may actually cause further decline," Kanyekanye said, warning that "businesses are barely surviving."

But Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions lawyer Zakeo Mutimutema said the country’s employers have long suppressed workers whom they fear will be empowered if such rules become law.

In other economic news, the National Railways of Zimbabwe is set to lay off 4,000 workers in a bid to maintain its financial viability amid shortages of capital and, say its critics, corruption within the state entity.

National Railways management refused to confirm or deny the existence of the layoff plans. But sources said it has already identified the workers who are to be laid off, who include junior line managers, rail coach attendants, laborers and security guards, most of which are members of the ZANU-PF youth militia.

Though some rail workers have not been paid for more than three months, sources said top managers are drawing monthly salaries of up to US$11,000 a month - a widespread phenomenon among state enterprises.

Labor experts say the retrenchments could set off a serious confrontation. Labor expert Davies Ndumiso Sibanda tells VOA Studio 7 reporter Gibbs Dube that the railway will need state assistance if it is to proceed with its redundancy program.