Zimbabwe’s public sector union backs down on strike, says situation is volatile

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HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe’s umbrella public sector union has backed down from plans for a national strike, an official said on Thursday, citing the volatile situation in the country after violent protests this month were met by a security crackdown.

But the main teachers’ union said on Thursday it was going ahead with a work stoppage from Feb. 5, saying the Apex Council was split between the education sector on one side and the rest of the civil service on the other.

Wage negotiations between the government and the Council, which represents 17 public sector unions, broke down on Wednesday. The unions then met to decide a date for a strike and announce it this week but the talks ended in disarray.

The government’s 305,000 workers are demanding wage rises and payments in dollars to help them stave off spiraling inflation and an economic crisis that has sapped supplies of cash, fuel and medicines in state hospitals.

“Apex feels that its not conducive to take action,” Cecilia Alexander, Apex Council’s chairwoman told Reuters.

“The situation is volatile and polarized and the action we take may be hijacked for issues which have nothing to do with labor.”

A three-day strike called by another union from Jan. 14 over a sharp fuel price hike by President Emmerson Mnangagwa turned into violence and looting. Rights groups say at least 12 people were killed but police say only three died.

The events of the past two weeks exposed the instinctive heavy-handedness of security forces, leading many to say that Mnangagwa is reverting to the strongarm tactics used by his predecessor Robert Mugabe, who was removed in a coup in 2017.

Unions have traded accusations of being paid by the opposition and donors to go on strike and cause violence.

The Zimbabwe Teachers Association (ZIMTA) said it will press with its strike action next week.

“We will be meeting our provincial leadership tomorrow to re-affirm the decision on the strike, there is no going back,” said Thomas Muzondo, ZIMTA vice president and Apex official.

Raymond Majongwe, secretary general of the 11,000-member Progressive Teachers’ Union, said the union will meet on Friday to decide whether to join the walkout.

Zimbabweans say Mnangagwa is failing to deliver on pre-election promises to provide accessible health and education and jobs to the majority, leading to growing frustration that analysts say could trigger further unrest.

Mnangagwa’s spokesman acknowledged the difficult economic situation on Wednesday but said it would take time to rebuild after suffering for decades.

More than 1,000 people were arrested for public order offences following the protests in mid-January and lawyers say they have been unable to extend representation to several hundred detainees including children.

Evan Mawarire, the most prominent among those arrested and charged with subversion, was on Wednesday night released from the country’s maximum prison after two weeks in detention. He told reporters at the prison that he was held with more than 300 others, some with broken limbs and in need of medical care.

Editing by James Macharia and Angus MacSwan

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