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Zimbabwe's informal workers eye July poll for change

By Christina Okello

Zimbabwe’s informal workers hope to make their voices heard in the country’s presidential election in July. They've been doing so through town hall meetings across the country to urge candidates to take them seriously.

They make up the bulk of Zimbabwe's workforce, and yet for many years, workers in the informal sector have operated on their own, outside traditional structures. Now they're hoping national elections on July 30 will give them a voice.

Informal workers include vendors, street traders, cross-border traders, farmers, to hair dressers, and for the past two weeks, they have gathered in several towns in Zimbabwe, including the capital Harare, to put their demands to the various political parties.

All were invited, including the ruling Zanu-PF, and the main opposition party the MDC-alliance.

"The purpose of these town halls is to allow the candidates to come along and listen to what the informal economy has to say," Mark Oxley, the field representative in Zimbabwe for the Center for International Private Enterprise, (CIPE), told RFI.

Oxley says that lack of knowledge about the informal sector is what pushed CIPE to partner with the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations, (ZCIEA) to spread awareness.

"I’ve been through the election manifestos, only four of them, as far as I can make out, contain anything on the informal economy. The manifestos of the two major parties have very little, and none of the parties appear to have any clear policy or idea with what to do with the informal economy," he said.

Nor do they appear to know what to do about the challenges facing informal workers either, says Wisborn Malaya, ZCIEA secretary general.

Coming out of the fringes

"We're subjected to harassment by police and are treated like illegal operators, with our goods confiscated," he told RFI, adding that the criminilisation of informal workers was being encouraged by outdated laws.

"There are outdated laws, which go as far back as 1968, 1978 that are governing the current operations of informal workers. Such laws can no longer fit the scope of the current operational environment in the country," he said.

The informal economy compared to the formal one is the second largest in the world after Bolivia, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but suffers from poor representation.

"There needs to be greater linkages between the formal sector and the informal economy," reckons Oxley. "If one can integrate and link the informal economy more to the formal economy it would mean significant measured economic growth," he says.

Ninety four percent of all workers in Zimbabwe work in the informal economy according to the 2014 Zimbabwe Labour force. As a result, argues Wisborn Malaya, they can no longer be excluded.

No more partisan politics

"We talk of somebody who is selling in the street. We want this person to be added to the main value chain, that this person pays fair dues to the local authorities and that this money is used to develop or improve the work space that that person is operating under," he says.

The July 30 polls will be the first elections without longtime leader Robert Mugabe, and the first, hopes Malaya, without partisan politics.

During the Robert Mugabe regime, "one person would hold 5 or 6 market places and people would pay money to him," he told RFI.

"People were allocated market places along partisan lines, or when they’re allocated that market place, somebody from a party would come to collect some form of revenue every single day from these people, which is outside what they would pay to local authorities."

Issues like these were put to the different candidates. For the first time since Zimbabwe's independence, they're more than 20 competing for the top job.

"Such democratic space has never been there before in Zimbabwe," says Malaya.

"It is a result of that democratic space that we’ve managed to do the town hall meetings, that we’ve managed to bring all these different political candidates and also tell them our demands," he said.

Holding leaders to account

Now that this form of grassroots democracy is over, what next?

"This is a process of advocacy," says Mark Oxley.

"We will be producing based on the recommendations from these town hall meetings a full informal economy agenda, which will be submitted to the new government," he told RFI.

Informal economy stakeholders remain optimistic that the July 30 polls will be an impetus for change, despite a bomb blast targeting President Emmerson Mnangagwa that has soured a political environment characterized by greater democratic space.

"It's time the informal economy was at the table, not on the table," continues Oxley, in the words of Lorraine Sibanda, president of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations.

Sibanda, during one town hall meeting in Gweru, in the centre of Zimbabwe, urged informal workers to hold their officials to account, through a song called Hokoyo.

"The meaning of the song is to tell to politicians, ‘hey watch out, we’re watching you," explains Malaya.

"We now know we have the power to remove you and put in someone who can do what we want. If you don’t do it, we will remove you and put in someone who can," he said.

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