Malawi workers body seek judicial review ‘draconian’ labour relations law

The Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU) says it is considering securing an interim relief pending a judicial review on the constitutionality of the amended Labour Relations and Employment Act, which President Dr. Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera assented to recently.

MCTU says it feels “gravely betrayed” by President Dr Chakwera for assenting to the amendment bill with “less regard to the plight of workers and the concerns raised by MCTU leadership” at a meeting with the president held on 14 July, 2021.

Charles Kumchenga

MCTU—the mother body of 26 affiliated trade unions—has made the sentiments in a statement dated 5 November, 2021, and signed by Charles Kumchenga and Madalitso Njolomole, who are the union’s President and Secretary General, respectively.

The amended labour law, among other ills, restricts workers’ right to industrial strikes to only three days.

The employer has been given powers to deduct wages of an employee on a strike, which is outside the prescribed three days.

Authorities, who have maintained that there were enough consultations on the bill, say the law strikes a balance on the right to strike and the need to produce in an economy.

Before and after the bill was passed in Parliament, MCTU—representing over 300, 000 members from the formal and 600,000 from informal sectors—says it used all International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) instruments and recommendations in social dialogue in order to demand authorities to drop the amendment bill or conduct further consultations on the matter.

Apparently, during the 14 July meeting, President Dr Chakwera assured MCTU that he could not assent to the bill once it was brought before him, saying he could “rather send it back pending further consultations among social partners”.

But the president went ahead to sign the bill into law, surprising and angering MCTU, workers, trade unions and other human rights bodies who maintain that the law could result in violation of workers’ rights.

In the statement, Kumchenga and Njolomole say, by assenting to the bill, President Dr Chakwera chose to listen to the “biased advisors and capitalists” who have “captured” the Ministry of Labour making it “the worst enemy” of the labour rights it was set to safeguard.

“In the spirit of social dialogue and in line with the principles of Tripartism and ILO Convention 144 and Recommendation 152, MCTU humbly made the decision to call-off the nationwide demonstrations that were planned for 15 July 2021 to express our deepest concern on the recently assented bills. Our position on the bill still remains the same that it is a clear violation of fundamental workers’ rights and a threat to trade unionism in Malawi,” the statement reads in part.

It goes on to state that the Tonse Government is “deliberately” introducing ant-trade unionism laws that have a direct negative impact on workers, in particular, those on the lower side of the ladder and with less bargaining power.

The statement says such laws by the Tonse Government will strongly contribute towards widening the income gap inequalities and consequently leading to an increased number of the working poor.

“MCTU is also certain that such laws will allow employers to accumulate more powers that will be prone to abuse, especially in terms of making unilateral employment related decisions. Nevertheless, we would like to remind the Tonse Government that we workers rallied behind them when they were still in opposition to fight the injustices by the previous government, in particular, impunity and corruption,” further reads the statement.

MCTU then reminds President Chakwera that half of the population in Malawi are workers who have the voting power and “must be handled with care.”

“These are among the people that fought alongside you, not only for their political parties to get in government, but also for a better Malawi where workers’ rights and welfare are respected and protected. Indeed, we feel heavily betrayed, but yet not too late for His Excellency to make the right decision,” says the statement.

MCTU then appeals to all well-wishers, international community, human rights activists, pressure groups, concerned citizens and all other civil society organizations to join the workers body in expressing dissatisfaction and highest concern on how the Tonse Administration under President Dr Chakwera is handling government business, in particular, labour issues.

“It should be made clear that the direction taken by MCTU does not prevent it from supporting any legitimate protests by independent members or national organizations who may want the legislature and executive to review the decisions as a matter of urgency.

“MCTU has lived long enough to understand that laws are reviewed to improve them and not to penalize the already impoverished voiceless and poor workers who continue receiving slave wages as the minimum wage remains below the poverty datum lie of 1.95$ a day. We demand the restoration of the decent work agenda in the world of work where freedoms and rights at work are respected while guaranteeing social protection and dignity in the world of work,” concludes the statement.

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