The import issue

17 04 2014
  1. Deirdre Holcroft shared a link.
    4 April
    Hi Deirdre,
    I did have mixed feelings about this when I first heard of it. Generally I am not in favour of protectionism which I presumed this to be. However, a lot of my customers complain that they just cannot compete with the South African imports that this was supposedly targeting. My seed supplier tells me that the carrots that come into this country (yes it does seem daft that we import carrots which is something we grow perfectly well) are grown by a South African farmer who grows 900ha. No, there are the correct number of zeros there. On this scale he can afford to take a very small markup and it would be difficult to compete. Of course there are some things such as cabbages which would be impossible to get here economically due to their weight. Having said that there is a shortage this season and prices are sky high. This is largely due to a major producer being kicked off his farm and to the abnormally heavy rains in February that trashed many crops.
    I was chatting to someone I know on the weekend who works for Selby Enterprises that produce quite a lot of fresh produce and import what they cannot grow. He was of the opinion that the ban was designed to take the small cross border traders out of the market. They buy cheap,  poor quality produce then import it and bribe the customs not to pay duties and sell it off very cheaply to the informal markets. Then he added; “Of course you can still get an import permit if you pay a bit extra”. No surprises here really; nearly anything is available in Zimbabwe for a price.
    Apparently in Botswana they have a system whereby the government meets fresh produce suppliers weekly and issues import permits based on expected shortfalls. This is a model that should have been adapted; if the purpose of the scheme was actually to protect local suppliers and not give those with contacts preferential access to import permits.
    I have heard people question the need for a lot of the luxury produce that comes into this country (I have commented on Egyptian grapes in the supermarkets elsewhere in this blog). No, we don’t NEED luxury produce but it is really a miniscule part of our already massive import bill and our problems run far deeper as anyone who has followed the link you provided will have realized. I heard that at last year’s CFU (Commercial Farmers’ Union) Congress the guest of honour was a Zambian woman who is the chairman of the equivalent organisation in Zambia. In her address she commented that Zambia is now an exporter of maize for the first time in many years. She stopped short of saying it was thanks to the Zimbabwean farmers who fled the land grab exercise and settled in Zambia, but the inference was there. As you know, we now need to import maize to meet our requirements of this staple food; an undesirable situation if ever there was one. Zambia did say earlier this year (or was it at the end of last year?) that it would give us maize on credit but then they changed their minds. Such is our credit rating. Maize production was subsidized for many years in this country just to avoid this sort of situation and this is one of the few instances where I think a subsidy is justified.
    So, this morning I found myself in Borrowdale Village shopping centre and went past a fish shop that I’d passed many times but never entered. Curious, I went inside and in the spirit of this post bought myself two pieces of Scottish salmon. No, I will not divulge how much they cost. But it was delicious!

Relics – an old tractor and the CFU

13 02 2013

Agriculture House is situated on Marlborough Drive in the suburb of the same name on the north-west of Harare. It was once the home of the Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU), the union that in its day represented the majority of commercial farmers in Zimbabwe. It was a powerful organisation that was a thorn in the side of the government for many years. But that was a long time ago and today my footsteps echoed in the large, silent entrance hall where I’d come on anything but agricultural business. I walked around the tractor on the plinth and up the stairs to a long, dark corridor.

Yes, that is 1917 on the front of this old Fordson tractor!

Yes, that is 1917 on the front of this old Fordson tractor!

Finding the door I needed I knocked and entered. I’d come to collect a tripod mount that I’d ordered from the UK through a small company based in the building. I got chatting to the woman who’d served me. It seemed that the CFU had sold the building some months previously and now it was now administered by a government company that let out offices to anyone who had need of them. This was not a new development – the CFU had the same practice when it was there but it had been busy and bustling then.

Once the farm invasions had started the CFU membership dried up and it became a relic of its former glory. I’d been a member through my company but got fed-up with the lack of service and did not bother to renew my membership some 8 years ago. At one stage it had a very good technology section that in itself made membership worthwhile but when I phoned the Agricultural Labour Bureau up with a labour problem and was referred to the National Employment Council (a refereeing body between employer and employee) I realized it was time to go.

Walking out of the sprawling complex I wondered why the tractor had not been taken. It has 1917 on the front so it might be worth something. Now it was also just a relic of a bygone era when Zimbabwe’s agriculture industry had held the region’s respect for its farming skills and exports.

Wage woes

21 12 2010

Some definitions:
NECA – National Employment Council for Agriculture. Part of the general NEC setup in Zimbabwe that helps set minimum wages and resolves disputes involving the latter.
CFU – Commercial Farmers’ Union. Once a very powerful union representing the commercial farmers in Zimbabwe it is now a shell of its former self due to the war of attrition on the commercial farmers by the government.
ALB – Agriculture Labour Bureau. The division of the CFU that deals with labour issues.
HPC – Horticulture Promotion Council. The organisation that looks after the interests of the commercial farmers in the export market.
ZFU – Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union. The union representing the mainly small scale black farmers.
GAPWUZ – General Agricultural and Plantation Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe. The largest (?) union representing the agricultural labour in Zimbabwe. Independent.
HGAPWUZ – Horticulture and General Agricultural and Plantation Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe. The government backed “other” labour union in Zimbabwe. Headed up by one Joseph Chinotimba, government bully boy of extraordinary brutality. An unimaginative lot as can be seen by the copying of the GAPWUZ name.

In the days of the Zimbabwe dollar the NECA was instrumental in bringing together various interested parties to set minimum wages; and essential task in the multi figure inflation of the time. They were admirably neutral and I used them on a few occasions to settle issues I had with my labour force when they went on strike or go-slows over various wage issues. All farming operations had to pay a levy which is currently set at US$1 per person on the labour force contributed by the worker with the employer contributing $1 per person too. The various unions representing both labour and employers also sat on the NECA  as members. Things started to go a bit wrong when the HGAPWUZ muscled its way into the market. It has never been a registered union and it is illegal to deal with it as such but after a while the GAPWUZ recognized that it was up against the big boys and buckled and HGAPWUZ was in the market. They came around to my workplace some years ago and made all sorts of extravagant promises and signed up most of the labour force away from GAPWUZ. The representative was an odious character both literally and figuratively and was always propositioning the women for sex. I made a point of telling him he was not “my friend” and refusing to shake his hand. I have not seen him since the US dollar took over as the official currency of Zimbabwe. That has not stopped the NEC and other parties from hiking the wages over the last 2 years.

By the beginning of this year the minimum wage for horticultural labour was $50 per month plus $7.50 for various allowances. I should explain here that horticultural wages have for many years been higher than general agricultural wages. This was because “horticulture” implied the business was exporting something and getting hard currency, an obvious advantage in the days of the Zimbabwe dollar. The ludicrous part of the definition was that many farmers were both exporters and local producers so two people doing exactly the same job but in different divisions of the same farm could earn vastly different wages. The export wages were at least 40% more than the local wages. Unfortunately my business is also classified as horticulture even though we have never exported. The “advantage” of exporting has now largely fallen away with the use of the US dollar locally.

In June this year an “official” notice came from the NECA stating that the minimum wage was now $70 per month and would be reviewed at the end of September. It was probably reasonable in that there had been some minor inflation but the ALB and the HPC cried foul. The person who’d signed for the employers’ unions was not authorized to do so and it transpired that the latter had never agreed to the wage increase. But by now the horse was well out of the stable and I increased the wages accordingly and passed on the increase to the customer appropriately. The exporters were not so lucky. Unable to pass on cost increases in a time of economic turmoil externally a number of them had to close. The HPC and others took the NECA to court. But the NECA did not stop there. Last month they announced ANOTHER wage hike of 20%  (to $84) and announced it with somer pretty aggressive newspaper advertising threatening those who did not comply with legal action.

I had noticed a few months back that the NECA had seemed to have lost its impartiality. One particularly obnoxious woman at the front desk had started to spout the government line against the various employers’ unions when I went there to pay dues. I have copies of various documents from the HPC and ALB that state that the NECA’s accounting has been less than transparent (and often totally absent) and various councillors have been claiming fat payment for turning up for meetings. I can’t also help wondering if this latest wage hike has something to do with the rumoured upcoming election i.e.  persuading the labour force to vote for those who have improved their lot.

This all came up today when I payed the staff their wages before Christmas. No I was not going to pay them the “new” wage. It is still in court over the previous increase and the courts have shut for the holiday and the various employers are cancelling their membership of the NECA and proposing setting up another as yet unnamed refereeing body. Yes they would get any backpay IF it ever became legal. I can cope with that but what really got my blood pressure up was the bonus issue (the Christmas bonus has become and unfortunate expectation in Zimbabwe over the years). Despite having been told repeatedly over the years that a bonus is a privilege not a right they just cannot seem to appreciate the difference. I made a testy comment that nobody ever seemed able to say thank you and be grateful for what they got when some 90% of Zimbabweans are unemployed. Thank you came the immediate reply, but why are we not getting as much as the neighbouring businesses? Eventually the foreman who was doing the translating had to attend to a customer so I took the opportunity to wander off too.

Wage hikes are damaging other sectors of the Zimbabwe economy too. Chatting to Harry who is in the wholesale garment industry he told me that they are being threatened with a minimum wage of $185 per month. He said exactly the same sort of hike sank the South African clothing industry some years ago and manufacturers moved their factories to the neighbouring states of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland where wages are less. Barry is in the furniture manufacturing industry and already they cannot compete with furniture imported from the previously mentioned states. “The unions have told us that they’d rather have fewer well paid workers than more people employed in a viable industry” he told me. “They just don’t care”.