The law provides for the right of workers, except for police, military personnel, and certain other categories of workers, to form and join independent unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively. Statutory restrictions regulate these rights. The law also requires the registration of a trade union with the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, which may take up to six months. The ministry has the power to refuse official registration on arbitrary, unjustified, or ambiguous grounds. No organization may be registered as a trade union unless its application to register is signed by not less than 50 supporters or such lesser number as may be prescribed by the minister, and, with some exceptions, no trade union may be registered if it claims to represent a class of employees already represented by an existing trade union. Unions may be deregistered under certain circumstances, but the law provides for notice, reconsideration, and right of appeal to an industrial relations court. The government has discretionary power to exclude certain categories of workers from unionizing, including prison staff, judges, court registrars, magistrates, and local court justices.
Trade Union operations are guided by their constitutions and provisions of the Industrial and Labor Relations Act. The government, through the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, brokers labor disputes between employers and employees. In cases involving the unjustified dismissal of employees, the ministry settles disputes through social dialogue, and any unresolved cases are sent to the Industrial Relations Court. The act also provides a platform for employers, workers, and government to dialogue on matters of mutual interest through the Tripartite Consultative Labor Council.
The law provides for collective bargaining. In certain cases, however, either party may refer a labor dispute to a court or for arbitration. The law also allows for a maximum period of one year for a court to consider the complaint and issue its ruling. Collective agreements must be filed with the commissioner and approved by the minister before becoming binding on the signatory parties.
In 2015 the government reformed some labor laws, through the amendment of the Employment Act, to increase government agencies’ capacity to address overall labor issues in the informal sector. Additionally, the government established a call center to allow the public access to information relating to labor matters. With the exception of workers engaged in a broadly defined range of essential services, the law provides for the right to strike if recourse to all legal options is first exhausted.
The law defines essential services as any activity relating to the generation, supply, or distribution of electricity; the supply and distribution of water and sewage removal; fire departments; and the mining sector. Employees in the Zambian Defense Forces and judiciary as well as police, prison, and ZSIS personnel are also considered essential. The process of exhausting the legal alternatives to a strike is lengthy. The law also requires a union to notify employers 10 days in advance of strike action and limits the maximum duration of a strike to 14 days. If the dispute remains unresolved, it is referred to the court. The government may stop a strike if the court finds it is not “in the public interest.” Workers who engage in illegal strikes may be dismissed by employers. An employee or trade union that takes part in a strike that has not been authorized by a valid strike ballot is liable to a fine of up to 50,000 kwacha ($5,319) for a trade union or 20,000 kwacha ($2,128) for an employee.
The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and employer interference in union functions, and it provides for reinstatement and other remedies for workers fired for union activity. Except for workers in the “essential services” and those in the above-mentioned categories, no other groups of workers were excluded from relevant legal protections. Administrative judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. Unions suffered from political interference and fracturing and were no longer seen as influential.
Although the Ministry of Labor and Social Security attempted to enforce applicable labor laws, enforcement was not effective. Penalties for employers were not sufficient and could not be effectively enforced to deter violations, which prompted the government to introduce a revised labor code. Other challenges that constrained effective enforcement included unaligned pieces of legislation, lack of financial capacity to implement programs, and lack of trained officers to enforce legislation.
Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining were not always enforced. Most unions chose to strike illegally, either to circumvent lengthy procedural requirements for approval or when other legal avenues were exhausted. While the law provides that workers engaging in illegal strikes may be dismissed, the government often intervened in such matters. For example, in January, when Luanshya Copper Mine in Copperbelt Province suspended seven miners for inciting other workers to strike, the company reversed its decision following the intervention by the Copperbelt provincial minister. NGOs advocated for worker rights throughout the year without government restriction.