There is constant tension between enabling business and employee protection in line with global best practice under the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions, which Zimbabwe ratified. Recent amendments to the country’s Labour Act endeavour to strike a delicate balance between the two.
Four of the main changes under the recent Labour Amendment Act relate to forced labour and child labour, sexual harassment and violence in the work place, leave and termination of employment.
The first change strengthens child protection from exploitative labour practices in Sections 19 and 81 of the Constitution. In 2019 Zimbabwe ratified Protocol 2014 to the 1930 Forced Labour Convention which bans forced labour. Changes to section 4 of the Labour Act now clarify which kind of labour is prohibited. This amendment also significantly raises penalties from a fine of up to US$400 (or up to two years of imprisonment) to a fine of up to US$2 000 (and/or up to ten years of imprisonment).
The amendment to section 6 ushers in two new subsections dealing with workplace violence and harassment, aligning it with the right to “safe labour practices” under the Constitution and the provisions of the ILO. Importantly, both employee to employee conduct and employer to employee conduct are addressed, and are further extended towards customers, visitors and stakeholders.
Notably, this amendment also extends the workplace territory to public and private spaces associated with one’s employment such as work-related trips, events or workplace organised social activities, work-related communications, employer-provided accommodation, and when commuting to and from work. This places businesses in a difficult position as their area of influence and control is naturally confined to their usual place of business. In light of this, businesses should develop strict policies against harassment and monitoring thereof.
When it comes to maternity leave, up to now the Labour Act stated that female employees who had been employed for at least a year had a right to be granted at least 98 days’ paid maternity leave. The section also restricted women to only three periods of paid maternity leave while employed by any one employer. Neither of these two limits was consistent with the Constitution which provides that women employees have a right to at least three months’ fully paid maternity leave without qualification; this has been amended by removing the two limits. There is still no provision for paternity leave.
The Labour Amendment Act also sought to streamline and promote the timely conclusion of the labour dispute settlement and retrenchment processes. Designated agents who handle disputes under a particular National Employment Council are now required to dispose of matters within 30 days.
In situations where disciplinary hearings are handled by labour officers, they must attempt conciliation within 30 days, and if the matter is not resolved it must be referred to compulsory arbitration. Retrenchment and the payment of packages are also now time bound for each step and there are remedies where timelines are missed.
The changes also deal with disputes arising during retrenchment. Employers must beware of the hefty criminal sanctions of fines and imprisonment for failure to give notice to the Retrenchment Board when retrenching or failure to comply with directions of the Retrenchment Board or employment council concerned. Personal liability now attaches to employers and anyone involved in the running companies where there is reason to believe that, due to their negligence or deliberate conduct, they caused its inability to pay employees retrenchment packages.
While more relaxed labour laws are viewed as investor friendly, minimal labour regulation is potentially more prejudicial to investors as it breeds chaos over time. The legislature has progressively sought to align Zimbabwe’s labour laws with the ILO, but a balance must be struck between employers’ and employees’ interests to spur economic development. Overall, businesses should take advice on how the new laws affect them to avoid inadvertent non-compliance.
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