Arrests of Zimbabwe Union Leaders a ‘Flagrant Violation’ of Human Rights

 by James Parks

On May 8th, the two top officials of Zimbabwe’s union movement were arrested by Zimbabwe police and charged with “inciting people to rise against the government and reporting falsehoods about people being killed.” Arrested were Lovemore Matombo, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), and Wellington Chibebe, ZCTU general secretary.  

Zimbabwe and its president Robert Mugabe have along record of worker and human rights violations. In the aftermath of the controversial presidential election in March, which observers say Mugabe lost, but which he is contesting, the Mugabe government has unleashed a new wave of violence and arrests against unions and other opponents in the past several weeks.

AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer William Lucy, who chairs the AFL-CIO Committee on International Affairs, says: 

The international community has to register an outcry against the Zimbabwe government. To arrest people who are exercising their freedom of speech and their rights as trade unionists is a flagrant violation of human rights. Governments around the world should condemn the Mugabe government and demand the immediate release of Matombo and Chebibe.



Lucy and a delegation from the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, which he heads, were denied entry into Zimbabwe in 2006 after some 1,500 ZCTU activists peacefully protesting the nation’s abysmal economic conditions were attacked by police. Witnesses say police attacked the crowd and brutally beat many of the union members and arrested 265 people, including Matombo and Chibebe, the 2003 winner of the AFL-CIO Meany-Kirkland Human Rights Award.

Guy Ryder, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), called for the immediate release of the two men: 

Freedom of speech is vital to trade unionists. The detention of the ZCTU leadership is extremely worrying, given the brutal beatings they suffered during their detention in September 2006 and the widespread use of violence and torture against detainees in Zimbabwe. The government of Zimbabwe must release the leadership of the ZCTU immediately and drop all charges against them. 

Nicole Lee, executive director of  the advocacy group TransAfrica Forum, called the arrests “an outrageous abuse of power.”

The ability to assemble and protest are fundamental rights, which have been abridged for some time in Zimbabwe. The arrest of leaders who call for reform is meant to send a chilling effect throughout the country to anyone who dissents from the Mugabe government’s course of action. 

The global union movement is deeply concerned about the violence inflicted upon the people of Zimbabwe. Last month, the ITUC, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and their African affiliates prevented an arms shipment destined for Zimbabwe from being unloaded. 

The ITUC has asked the International Labor Organization to intervene with the government of Zimbabwe to gain the release of Matombo and Chebibe. It also will complain to the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association against these unjust arrests.