Labour movement has little to celebrate on May Day

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) remains the only credible labour movement in the country, despite facing internal strife and pressure from the government, economic and political analysts told IRIN.

Over the past month the ZCTU leadership has been challenged by factions in affiliated unions, who have accused them of misappropriating money and awarding themselves hefty salary increases without union approval.

As May Day approaches - the traditional commemoration of workers' rights worldwide - the government has intensified its labelling of the 300,000-member ZCTU as a political appendage of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), rather than a genuine labour movement.

The ZCTU leadership alleges that the infighting has been stirred by the government, but the dissension has raised questions over the transparency of the movement, which in the late 1990s arose as a powerful and critical voice of the ruling party's economic policies.

Key figures in the MDC, including party leader Morgan Tsvangirai, were senior ZCTU members, and the government has insisted that a clear link remains.

Eddie Cross, an MDC economic advisor, said despite the country's shrinking economy - where formal employment stands at just 20 percent - the relevance of the ZCTU remained, and was reflected in its involvement in national economic policy forums alongside the government and business representatives.

"The ZCTU cannot be written off. Through affiliate unions it represents the largest number of workers in the country and, as such, cannot be ignored. Almost all employed Zimbabweans are members, and that makes them an important constituency in national planning," said Cross.

Despite the difficulty the ZCTU has faced in organising industrial action to protest plummeting standards of living - the last stay-away it called in 2004 led to the arrest of its leadership under public order laws - ZCTU president Lovemore Matombo told IRIN the movement was far from being a spent force.

"We admit that the ZCTU is facing a lot of pressure - government is doing all it can to label us as pro-MDC politicians: it has used pro-ZANU-PF unions within us to divide the movement, but that will fail, as did other politically inspired unions like the ZFTU [Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions]," said Matomo.

Underlining the fraught relations between government and the unions, police arrested six ZCTU members under the Public Order and Security Act in the eastern town of Mutare this week while the unionists were planning their May Day celebrations, the ZCTU said in a statement.

"How does the government think it will address the economic crisis by antagonising labour - they are just further jeopardising economic growth," commented ZCTU general-secretary Wellington Chibebe.

Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Minister Nicholas Goche refused to comment on the continued role of the ZCTU in Zimbabwe, or the arrest of the ZCTU officials.