Historical Background



The Trade Union movement in Zimbabwe dates back to the period of colonialism (1890) and the establishment of capitalist relations of production.

The central role played by capitalism in the colonialisation of the country, and the creation of a capitalist mode of production in Zimbabwe did underlie the privilege role capitalism was able to carve out for itself in the country.

The British South Africa (BSA) Company, under the Cecil John Rhodes, came to Zimbabwe in search of a second gold rand, following the extensive discovery and exploitation of the mineral in South Africa. The country only became a British colony in 1923, after 33years of company rule.

During the initial phase of colonization, the focus of economic policy was on the mining sector. The settlers had been inspired to move to the north of the Limpopo river in the hope of finding a second Gold Rand.

When it became clear the expected huge gold deposits were not there, the value of BSA Company’s shares on the London Stock Exchange collapsed. As away of minimizing the loss, the BSA Company shifted its attention from mining towards agriculture.


Faced with serious labour shortages, the colonial regime resorted to coercive ways of recruiting labour.At first, taxes were introduced as a means force locals into wage employment. Hut and poll taxes were introduced in 1894.However, the tax instrument failed to ensure a steady flow of labour.


Since taxes could be paid in kind, locals resorted to this method of payment. In addition, they sold their produce to raise the money required by the tax authorities. Faced with low wages and poor working conditions, workers responded by deserting their employers.

Worried by the resistance of locals to wage employment, employers had to recruit from other countries such as Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique and even as far as Ethiopia.

To create a stable workforce, additional measures were taken in the form of Masters and Servants Ordinance of 1901, which made it a criminal offence to break a labour contact. In addition, Pass Laws were passed in 1904 to limit the movement of workers as well as to helping enforcing employment contracts. The laws effectively put workers under the control of their employers.

When it became clear that the measures were inadequate, more brutal instruments were used, notably, the land expropriation. Although various pieces of legislation were enacted to deprive Africans their right to land, the most far reaching were the Land Apportionment Act of 1930 and the Land Tenure Act of 1969.
These measures were meant to deprive the blacks of their sole source of livelihood; land, and make them dependent on wage employment. In addition the separation of the husband from the rest of the family was calculated to keep wages low .The Industrial Conciliation Act(ICA) Of 1934 legalised the formation of white trade unions while making black unions illegal. This meant the black workers were still governed by the Masters and Servant Ordinance of 1901.

The Act had also effect of barring blacks from skilled jobs as they could not take up apprenticeships. The Act made provisions for the setting of wages for white employees, while those for blacks were left to the whims of the employer.

Following unrest emanating from widespread poverty, the Howman Commission was appointed in 1944.The commission found that blacks were generally very angry with the way they being treated. It recommended the establishment of a wage board for black workers and the need to pay a wage that was sufficient to meet the needs of the family and not a single person.

Failure to address the issues culminated in the 1948 general strike which started in Bulawayo.The striking workers agreed to go back to work following promises by government t establish National Native Labour Board. The Board published Labour Regulations in January 1949, which recommended the introduction of a minimum wage, job grading and measures to improve urban housing

The strike had a long impact. In an address to the Legislative Assembly, The then Prime Minister, Sir Godfrey Huggins observed that:” We are witnessing the emergency of a proletariat and in this country it happens to be black. They are demanding a place under the sun and we have to face up to it.”

Notwithstanding such a forward-looking approach, the Hudson Commission which was appointed to examine the causes of the 1948 general strike came up with measures to tighten control over workers. As a result, the Subversive Activities Act of 1950 was passed. The Act gave the State powers to arrest and detain workers’ leaders and to control strikes.

Realizing the futility of suppressing the growth of trade unionism, government amended
the Industrial Conciliation Act in 1959. The Act legalized the formation of trade unions, albeit under strict conditions. Trade unions could only be registered if they were representative, non-political, financially healthy and with the consent of the employer.

Under this Act, three categories of workers were recognized, namely the skilled, who were whites, semi-skilled who were coloureds and the unskilled, who were blacks. In this way, the Act maintained the segmentation of the labour market along racial lines.

Under the Act, trade union funds were not to be used for political purposes, trade unionists were denied the rights to affiliate with any political party or political organisation. People arrested under the Unlawful Organisations (political parties) Act could not hold posts in trade unions, donations from outside organizations had to be approved by the Minister of Labour and the right to strike was denied. Under such onerous conditions, few black trade unions bothered to register such that by 1960, only two were registered.

However, inspite of the existence of such draconian laws, trade unions played an active role in the nationalist struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.In any event; it was not easy to separate trade unionism and political activism. Because of the thin line separating the two, trade unionists were incarcerated during the 1960s and 1970s.
The impediments faced by trade unionists during the colonial era were as follows:

  • police harassment (there were 68 unionists in detention in 1973);
  • absence of continuity in leadership due to harassment;
  • the privilege but divisive status of the white labour aristocracy;
  • the creation and presence of an industrial reserve army to pull down wage costs;
  • internal power struggle in unions;
  • and financial problems due to an erratic and optional check off system.

At the time of independence in 1980,there was as many as 6 national trade union centres, namely the African Trade Union Congress(ACTU),the National African Trade Union Congress(NACTU),the Trade Union Congress of Zimbabwe(TUCZ),the United Trade Unions of Zimbabwe(UTUZ),the Zimbabwe Federation of Labour(ZFL) and the Zimbabwe Trade Union Congress(ZTUC).The first historic after independence was the bringing together of the 52 existing unions to a congress on February 28,1981 where the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) was formed.

At this congress, unionists that were closely associated with the ruling party, ZANU (PF) took over the reigns of the labour movement.
Thus, during the first 5 years of independence, the relationship between ZANU (PF) and by extension, government and the ZCTU was largely paternalistic. It was only after the collapse of the then executive of the ZCTU, and its second Congress held in 1985 that a more independent leadership, largely drawn from the larger and more professionally run unions that the relationship between the ruling party and the ZCTU was reduced to arms-length.

Thereafter, the ZCTU steered a more independent and increasingly confrontational position. The divide between the ZCTU and government widened when the former opposed attempts by the latter to introduce a one-party state in Zimbabwe in the late 1980s following the merger between the two parties, ZANU (PF) and ZAPU in 1987.
The relationship was further strained following the introduction of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) in 1991. As the hardships arising from the market-based reforms deepened, government increasingly resorted to draconian measures to shore up its waning political support. As issues of governance deteriorated, the ZCTU increasingly became the torch bearer for alternative governance.
Together with 40 other civil society groups, the ZCTU spearheaded the formation of an alternative party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), whose top leadership came from the labour movement. The ZCTU played a key role in changing the political landscape of Zimbabwe in a bid to influence a radical policy shift with a pro worker stance.