ZCTU president Chishimba Nkole yesterday scolded President Edgar Lungu, saying since he went to State House, he has shut the door on discussions with leaders of the Labour movement.

And Nkole told the Head of State that the National Health Insurance Bill which he recently assented to was a bad law which the Zambian workers would challenge.

Meanwhile the Head of State took time to applaud informal sector labourers, including newspaper vendors, marketeers, carpenters, welders, transporters, small-scale farmers and cross-border traders, amongst others, saying he has a lot of respect for humble beginnings.

On the Health Insurance Act, the President said if there was need for amendments Parliament would do so because it was not cast in concrete.

Speaking on the occasion of Labour Day in Lusaka, Nkole took off gloves to question the President on why he was not responding to letters from the labour movement and closed State House doors to discussions on policies that were increasing poverty among employees in the formal sector.

“We shall continue to oppose policies and programmes that not only increase poverty among workers but are being done without wider consultation such as the controversial National Insurance Bill which is now enacted into law. Dialogue and consultation are cornerstones of democracy, we cannot call ourselves democrats if we short circuit dialogue. The National Health Insurance Act, Your Excellency is an unpopular law and workers of Zambia will pursue it until justice prevails. The Zambian worker is already overburdened. As you may be aware, the vast majority of the Zambian workers are in the informal sector, we don’t know how the National Health Insurance Bill is going to capture those. The thinking on our side is that obviously, the overburdened formal sector which is just about 10 per cent are the ones that are going to shoulder the heavy burden of the National Health Insurance Scheme,” Nkole observed.

“Your Excellency, I must stress the point here that we made all the efforts that any labour movement worth its sort can do to pursue a matter before it becomes law. We wrote letters, we communicated in the press, we were on radio trying to state our case and we were saying, I am not sure your Excellency if you are fully informed, we were saying there was no exhaustive consultation, we were not consulted, we are talking about a bill which concerns our own members and we have a say, unfortunately, we did not have a chance to talk about our situation there. Zambia is known to be a democracy and we all know that democracy only thrives when there is effective dialogue. We were saying ‘let us explain and tell you what the lacunas and the short comings are in that bill and unfortunately, government turned a deaf ear to that and all we hear is that it has been signed.”

Nkole then told President Lungu that the demands for a meeting with the Head of State was not to waste his time with mere greetings but to discuss serious issues.

“Your Excellency as we talk about dialogue, you also happen to be, I don’t know what word I am looking for, whether victim will be the correct one, but I want to say that even yourself, have not opened your doors officially to the labour movement in Zambia. Since you came into office, we have been writing letters to talk and sometimes we ask ourselves as to what the problem could be. Sometimes we say ‘maybe the President thinks that we have no issues or rather, we just want to go and spend a few minutes there and waste time’. Your Excellency, I will continue saying that we are aware of your schedules and responsibilities as Head of State and when we make calls, it is not just meant to say hi to you, it means there are a lot of problems. I know busy people sometimes would think that ‘maybe these people just want to say a greeting’, there are issues and when you say no to me, it means you are saying no to the workers of Zambia and their families because we carry heavy responsibilities and messages,” Nkole said.

“We are aware that there is a Minister of Labour, who we are supposed to talk through, but there are also issues which needs your intervention Your Excellency. So I am saying it publicly because I have tried my level best and I have never come to State House upon the letters and requests that we have made. So I hope that my fellow workers know now and I hope they won’t be saying that the unions are doing nothing.”

And Nkole said workers were not interested in meaningless claims that the economy was doing well.

“Even if workers are celebrating Labour Day today, they have little to celebrate about. Workers are overburdened with huge economic challenges which have impacted negatively on their lives. I am aware that there have been numerous claims about the economy doing well but workers are not interested in claims, they want action. Workers are demanding radical economic transformation and we want to use this Labour Day to drive our point home. We don’t want to continue being enslaved by poor wages, poor conditions of service and exploitation while the economy is left to be run predominantly by foreign capital and foreign investors. There will be no radical economic transformation if government fails to intervene to stom the behavior of foreign investors violating our labour laws and subjecting our members to exploitation and abuse. We demand the introduction of strict capital controls to curb the tide of capital flight in the country,” said Nkole.

“We also need to find a lasting solution to the problems that are at our two universities. That is the University of Zambia and the Copperbelt University. Year in, year out we hear that there are squabbles, I think a lasting solution needs to be found. And Your Excellency, really, you must have the correct information about what is happening at the Copperbelt University for you to make a correct decision. We are tired of seeing the same problems recurring year in, year out…We are also alarmed by the increasing rate of borrowing which is fast reaching unsustainable levels and it is feared that this will plunge the country into another debt trap. Please, we do not want to go down that route again.”

And in response, President Lungu said the Health Insurance Bill could be amended if need be.

“We will continue consulting you. Even in the National Health Insurance Bill, we will continue consulting you. Parliament will continue sitting, if there is need for amendments, we will take this to Parliament and we will make amendments. This is not cast in concrete because even concrete we can break it and rebuild. But we will not be held back because you have differed with us, no! Keep talking to us, we will hear you,” President Lungu said.

He said he had a lot of respect for labourers in the informal sector.

“Collectively, the workers in various sectors of the economy continue to contribute to the sustainable development of our country. This year’s Labour Day comes at an opportune time when, as government, we have placed great emphasis on the need to strengthen partnerships and synergies which foster the creation of decent jobs thereby supporting national development. Government is alive to the fact that a large part of our labour force is earning a living from the informal economy. I wish to applaud these Zambians working at small scale level- from newspaper vendors to marketeers, carpenters, welders, transporters, small-scale farmers and cross-border traders, amongst others. I applaud them because i believe in the principle of “never despise the days of small beginnings,” he said.

“I am also aware that the overall contribution of this sector is not proportionate to the potential contribution it could make to the national economy. Therefore, much needs to be done to harness this potential through improving the well-being of the workforce. Once harnessed, this informal economy will be better managed to contribute to the national gross domestic product. The undesirable levels of poverty, coupled with unemployment and other social challenges require more work for us to overcome. The challenges involved in creating decent jobs in the 21st century and the current global environment are enormous and should be tackled through strong partnerships that meet today’s needs and address problems without compromising future needs.”

He said government was committed to improving the working conditions of all workers in various sectors.

“In our quest to ensure that workers have decent wages, I am delighted to report that a baseline survey on the prevailing minimum wages in the various sectors has been done. This will in turn help in the revision of the domestic, shop workers and general orders as well as the determination of minimum wages for selected sectors. Before their implementation, we will ensure that our social partners are fully consulted. I can only direct the Minister of Labour and Social Security and the social partners to expedite the process so that we have revised minimum wages in the soonest possible time. The PF government has an ambitious 7th National Development Plan for the period 2017 to 2021 to enhance decent job opportunities in the Zambian economy through the following: The promotion of industrialisation; Facilitation of micro, small and medium scale enterprises; Development of cooperatives; Increasing employment opportunities in rural areas; and Promotion of entrepreneurship skills development,” said President Lungu.

“We can only do this if we work together, the employer, the union and government. And that’s why I am emphasizing that dialogue should not be left to the politicians alone. Let’s dialogue, even employers, employees, workers and government. In order to achieve these goals, government has put in place a number of strategic interventions. Notable interventions include the value chain development programme which supports young entrepreneurs in both urban and rural areas to add value to local products.”