Zimbabwe: Abductions Targeting Worker Rights Defenders

Doctors in Harare are protesting the abduction and disappearance of the acting president of the Zimbabwean Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA), Peter Magombeyi. His disappearance is part of a pattern of violence against civil society defenders in the country, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and other rights groups.

More than 50 trade union leaders and opposition activists have been abducted in the middle of the night, many of them tortured, in Zimbabwe since January of this year, according to rights groups.

The  death threats Magombeyi received before his disappearance closely parallel those targeting ZCTU President Peter Mutasa and Secretary General Japhet Moyo.

“What is frightening to some of us,” says Moyo, “[is that] the network cell phone numbers used are the same as those that were used in sending threats to myself previously.”

An attempted fact-finding visit by a delegation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in February this year resulted in denial of visas for most of the delegation and the arrest of  ITUC-Africa Secretary General Kwasi Adu Amankwah by state security. The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, yesterday began a 10-day visit to assess Zimbabwe’s performance regarding respect of citizens’ right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Ongoing death threats and a sustained government crackdown have forced Moyo and Mutasa into hiding, impeding ZCTU’s ability to effectively represent its members and ensure workers’ right to freedom of association. Citing failure to act, the ZCTU last month petitioned Zimbabwe police to investigate and bring to justice individuals who continue to threaten its leaders. Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) dismissed reports of kidnappings Tuesday as “alleged abductions as a means to tarnish Zimbabwe’s image and compromise its security.”

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s economy flounders and inflation and price hikes  complicate Zimbabwean workers’ already difficult lives.

In the aftermath of a civil society protest against rising prices and a financial tax increase in October last year,  some trade unionists were beaten; Mutasa, Moyo and 33 other trade unionists were arrested; senior ZCTU leaders were forced into hiding; and ZCTU Harare offices were cordoned off by some 150 police.  After ZCTU helped organize a national strike in January this year to again protest price hikes, violent clashes resulted in 12 deaths and 320 injuries, blamed by human rights organizations on the army and police. Police seeking Mutasa after the protests allegedly assaulted his brother at his home and intimidated ZCTU staff. Arrested and charged with subversion for their role in the January protests, Mutasa and Moyo were left in legal limbo for months, after the Zimbabwe government repeatedly postponed their trials.

The majority of Zimbabwean workers eke out a living in the informal economy, struggling to survive on less than $1 a day. Those with formal jobs often do not fare well either. A 2016 study by the Solidarity Center found that 80,000 workers in formal jobs did not receive wages or benefits on time, if at all. In many cases, they made only enough to get to work.