Industrial relation begins when there is an employer and an employee who interact within the context of an organisation which is also referred to as a Primary Industrial Relation, as well as the State which is also called a Secondary Industrial Relation. This interaction is influenced by their internal arrangements and to a larger extent by the actions of the State.
At the time of entering into a working relationship, the employee and the employer both have certain rights. These rights may be explicitly stated in, for example, the employee’s contract of employment or they may be contained in the various pieces of legislation, which may or may not be referred to in the contract of employment. Such rights entail that the employer/employee relationship should be mutually beneficial. However, there are so many instances which show that this relationship turns to be exploitative in Malawi, though there are many pieces of legislation that provide the rules of the game. Since the employer is the most powerful in that relationship, the employee is the exploitation victim.
Let me then highlight few of the circumstances in Malawi. There are a lot of job-seekers and employers are taking advantage of their plight by advertising for vacancies in the newspapers as if they will follow the right procedure to fill in that vacancy, only to recruit bosses acquaintances that did not even apply for the post. Those who responded to the advert are not even given feedback. This tendency is impoverishing the already poor job- seeker who spends almost K700 to apply for one post. Other organisations even take vacancy advertisement as a business for them to be seen that they are recruiting yet they just want to exploit job seekers by continuously advertising for the same vacant posts.
The Employment Act has provided for the normal working hours and number of days per week and the government also sets a minimum wage but what is happening in all categories of employment relations like the homes, the offices, the schools, the farms and the shops is pathetic. There are so many employees who are receiving less than the set minimum wage. I have seen a good number of people who are working more than 8 hours a day, 7days a week including public holidays and others even work for 24 hours, 7days a week without any overtime pay. This is very common in schools, shops and homes. The employees just persevere because the only resort is quitting and taking this option sounds like turning yourself into the street beggar. Some employees try to ask but they are told that it is part of their work and others are taken as enemies of the organisation to the extent that they are ill-treated in different ways just because they asked for their right. Annual leave is an issue some employers do not even imagine of giving their employees.
All these divergent outcomes are greatly attributed to the weak enforcement measures of the legislation and the laxity attitude of the State and the trade unions. It seems that the State is limiting its role to legislative and regulatory, where it provides the institutional framework for the conduct of industrial relations, which ensures minimum basic and acceptable standards of employment, condition of work, welfare and security; and adjudicatory by providing machinery for intervention and settlement in labour grievances, misunderstandings and disputes cases which is also inefficient due to corruption.
The trade unions seem to be interested in just collecting subscriptions from members and enrich themselves. For example, there is a trade union that has a membership of over 50 000 and every member is deducted K100 from the salary every month but what it is doing to protect its members is literally nothing.
However, coming from the back ground where unemployment rate is high and where some employees are ignorant of their rights and some employers are naturally cruel while others are also ignorant of their obligations, the State needs to enforce its investigatory and advisory role by seeing to it that the labour officers and inspectors are constantly touring employment establishments in order to ensure conformity with labour and industrial relations legislation, investigating breaches and grievances, and generally advising employers on improvements in working conditions and on management/employee relations. On the other hand, the State as well as trade unions need to constantly conduct an education and training programme, which I believe will help solve most of the industrial relations problems in Malawi. It will not only mitigate, but could also be a complete solution to many of the problems.