HWANGE, Zimbabwe – After four months of living in a makeshift tent made of tree trunks and tattered sacks, the wives of coal miners in Zimbabwe’s northwestern town of Hwange feel victorious. They’ve just ended a long-running protest against the Hwange Colliery Company Limited (HCCL) by brokering a deal that promises to change their families’ livelihoods.
Since January 29, in day and night shifts, hundreds of women occupied the traffic island outside HCCL’s offices until the colliery yielded to their demands for payment of their husbands’ salary arrears and the provision of better income-generating resources.
HCCL’s mine workers had not been paid their full salaries since 2013. As a result, many of the women have been forced to find work themselves, or take on second or third jobs, just to keep their children fed.
“The company has finally heard our voices and we have achieved a lot through our protest.”
One of their key demands was a payment of at least $5,000 of employee arrears, but the struggling HCCL, which is partly state-owned, lacks the capacity for a mass payout to more than 2,000 staff. After recent negotiations, the lump sum demand was withdrawn, and salaries have begun trickling into the mine workers’ bank accounts. This week, HCCL also rolled out a vocational skills training program to assist women with various self-help projects, such as pig and poultry farming and sewing, to help them support their families.
Protest committee member Amaury Saulo told News Deeply she felt triumphant, and that the women’s movement had had an immense impact.
“The company has finally heard our voices, and we have achieved a lot through our protest. We have managed to get our hospital benefits reinstated, and just last week our husbands started receiving their full salaries as well as the agreed salary payment of their arrears.
“A double salary is something they hadn’t received before, but our strike helped to achieve that,” she said.
For five years the miners have been paid only partial salaries – some months, they got no pay at all – and by now, HCCL owes its workers an estimated total of $70 million. Since last year, the company has had a credit scheme arrangement in place. Through this, it’s scheduled to pay its employees at least $200 of their arrears on a monthly basis, but due to financial constraints, payments have been erratic.
Last year, workers were paid only 7 percent of their arrears; this year, the company said it would pay the arrears, but not until halfway through the year. Acting HCCL board chair, Juliana Muskwe, told News Deeply the company was making greater efforts to meet workers’ needs and extend support to their spouses.
“We’ve had an increase in production, so we’re now able to start paying our workers; they now get 100 percent of their salary and 100 percent of their monthly arrears so we’re trying to do our best.
“We also engaged the women to start up self-help projects and we are going to support them with training and also with the setting up of their projects as part of our corporate social responsibility program. In the past, women used to get support from the colliery, but due to the economic situation and low productivity this couldn’t be done, but we are now prioritizing their needs,” she said in a telephone interview.
Sophia Mudimba, 44, makes reed mats for a living. She told News Deeply the long wait for her husband to receive his salary this year has meant she’s had to find extra work as a cleaner in people’s homes and at the offices of a Hwange-based electricity supplier. She hopes the skills training program will help her access better markets for her mats and give up cleaning.
“The piece jobs don’t always pay well – when people don’t have money, they pay with food. What I really need is money, but [at least] I’m getting something to feed my family,” she said.
“I hope this training program will let me find better places to sell my mats so I can send all my children to school. My mats are sold here for $5 and in Binga [50 miles/80 km east of Hwange], but I get very little, so this training has to help me find somewhere better to sell.”
Sheila Ndlovu, 41, also a mat-maker, whose husband until recently received just $200 every three months under the credit scheme arrangement, says she hopes the change in relations with the colliery will be permanent and improve her family’s prospects. After she spent many of her days at the tent in protest, Ndlovu’s husband eventually received $350 salary and $300 in arrears.
“If my husband gets his salary and what they owe him every month, then we can raise our family up. I want my daughter to go back to school and finish her education.”
Ndlovu hopes the increased income will have a significant impact on her family. Her eldest daughter got married at the age of 15 in 2016. A year before she was due to complete her school leaving exams, she dropped out of school. After their daughter was born, her husband abandoned them, so the daughter and her child moved back in with Ndlovu.
“If my husband gets his salary and what they owe him every month, then we can raise our family up. I want my daughter to go back to school and finish her education so she can do something better for herself instead of just sitting at home with a baby and nothing to do.
“That’s why we need this money to come all the time,” she said.
While HCCL’s immediate prospects seem optimistic, it’s not guaranteed the company’s financial problems can be easily resolved.
The global downturn in coal usage, as well as Zimbabwe’s own troubles in maintaining the country’s sole thermal power station, which runs on coal, have reduced demand for the fuel and caused the 119-year-old mine to suffer huge losses and accumulate massive debt in recent years. Allegations of corruption by senior management have also bled HCCL dry. Earlier this month, the managing director was suspended on the grounds of unethical practice.
“Now that we are seeing some signs of change, we hope for the better because our husbands have gone for too long with no money. We had to stand with them.”
Clarice Ngoma led the near-120-day occupation. She says she feels very encouraged by the efforts made by HCCL’s board, but she’s aware that greater efforts need to be made to ensure malpractice ends and the colliery puts workers’ priorities before personal profits.
“Now that we are seeing some signs of change, we hope for the better because our husbands have gone for too long with no money. We had to stand with them,” she said.
“We hope to see an improvement in things, we don’t know for sure, but we have hope.”
For now, peace has been made, and the bougainvillea-hedged roundabout is clear of occupants. But if the colliery fails to honor its promises to maintain payments and support sustainable livelihoods, the women say they will return – to fight for their husbands’ dues and their families’ incomes.