Workers, trade unions storm Malawi Parliament: demand withdrawal of draconian new labour bill

Scores of workers and representatives of worker organizations mobilized under the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU) on Wednesday converged at the gates of the Parliament building in the capital Lilongwe and submitted a petition calling for the withdrawal of the Industrial Relations Amendment Bill, which, among other ills, restricts workers’ right to industrial strikes.

The workers had started massing at the Parliament’s gates as early as 8:00AM while hoisting placards bearing messages that disparaged the amendment bill in what MCTU described as “a vigil” or “a protest”.

The “vigil” by MCTU, which is the umbrella body of all trade unions in Malawi, brings even more life in the fight against the amendment bill whose tabling in Parliament last week sparked anger among workers, worker organizations and other human rights bodies who said the bill could result into violation of workers’ rights.

In an interview with Nyasa Times from Parliament’s gates, a deputy director at MCTU, Jessie Ching’oma, demanded Parliament to withdraw the amendment bill, saying there have been no consultations on the bill.

She accused the government of taking the matter “in its own hands” and “rushing through the process”.

“We are not happy. How could Parliament debate a bill without consultations? There is need for thorough consultations.

“The right to strike is part of our fundamental rights and principals as workers. This right is also enshrined in the constitution,” said Ching’oma.

According to Ching’oma, in labour matters such as this one, common practice and law in Malawi demand that “three parties” meet and discuss if there is need for any review.

The “three parties”, according to Ching’oma, are; workers organizations represented through MCTU, employers organizations and Ministry of Labour.

“These parties look at the issues they think could be reviewed for the benefit of all. But the meeting of the three parties on the amendment bill has never taken place. There has been no consultation at all. This is a violation of the workers rights. Government must understand that there are always legitimate grievances whenever workers strike,” Ching’oma said.

When she presented the bill in Parliament last week, the Deputy Minister of Labour, Vera Kamtukule, argued that while it is the right of employees to stage a strike, there is need to strike a balance on the right to strike and need to produce in an economy.

The bill, which proposes amendments to Labour Relations and Employment Acts, espouses that the employer must be given powers to deduct wages of an employee on strike, whether it is illegal or not.

It also wants the courts to categorize essential services that would not be allowed to go for a strike or lockdown.

The Industrial Relations Amendment Bill, after facing initial criticism and resistance last week, had been immediately referred to the Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament for further scrutiny.

But according Ching’oma, Parliament was reportedly sent to debate the bill again on Wednesday afternoon.

She said the workers and trade unions could spend the rest of the afternoon at Parliament’s gates, waving their placards in order to move passing legislators to deny the bill.

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