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Few Turn Out for May Day Observances in Zimbabwe - 2003-05-01

Few workers in Zimbabwe turned out for annual May Day celebrations Thursday. Most public transportation was shut down. High unemployment has transformed May Day messages from calls for better wages to anger against the government.

Political analysts say they would have been surprised if May Day had attracted many workers to normal celebrations.

According to statistics compiled by the trade union movement, most workers have lost their jobs in the last three years of political and economic turmoil.

Among them are more than 150,000 former commercial farm workers who lost their jobs and homes, as the government seized more than 90 percent of white-owned farms in the last three years.

Unemployment in Zimbabwe stands at 70 percent.

Traditionally, May Day speeches in Zimbabwe targeted employers and working conditions. This year, the target was President Robert Mugabe and his administration.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions' May Day message to workers said they should not be intimidated by the government and that many transport operators had been harassed into withdrawing their services on May Day.

The group also called on the government to raise the minimum wage for workers to more than 120,000 Zimbabwe dollars a month, or about $100. This is more than five times the present wage for the lowest earners.

The trade union group organized a three-day national strike last week, which paralyzed commerce and industry across the country.

Opposition Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai, himself a former secretary general of the Trade Union Congress, sent out a message to workers saying the unions and the opposition would continue with strikes and demonstrations to drive President Mugabe from office, unless he agrees to talks on a transitional government leading to fresh presidential elections.

Another union group, the Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions, which says it supports the government, put on live music and a soccer match to mark May Day. It is not recognized by the International Labor Organizations.

Zimbabwe's economic and political crisis continues to deepen. On the eve of May Day, most banks had run out of hard cash, and long lines of people went away empty-handed when automatic teller machines had no money.

Garage owners say the fuel shortage is now at its worst since pumps ran dry last December. Industry leaders say electricity cuts lasting between four and six hours a day threaten tens-of-thousands of jobs.

One political analyst said Thursday Zimbabwean workers and the unemployed were far too tired to participate in rallies this May Day.