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‘Starvation wage’ riles civil servants

Wongai Zhangazha

WHEN Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said at his inauguration in February 2009 that civil servants would start earning salaries in foreign currency that would enable them to provide for their families, the joy was unbridled.

This was after all coming from a former trade unionist made good, who during his campaign in 2008 said he held the “keys” to unlock resources that would see among other things civil servants’ working conditions improve.
In his inauguration speech, Tsvangirai said: “As Prime Minister I make this commitment that, as from the end of this month, our professionals in the civil service, every health worker, teacher, soldier and policeman will receive their pay in foreign currency until we are able to stabilise the economy.”
“These hard currency salaries will enable people to go to work, to feed their families and to survive until such time that we can begin to sustain ourselves as a country.”
This, to the civil servants who for many years had borne the brunt of a collapsing economy and hyperinflation, brought hope that finally priority would be given to improve their working conditions. 
What also raised their expectations was the fact that MDC was born out of labour unions and as a result more sympathetic to their cause. Their hopes were high that the inclusive government would succeed where the former Zanu PF government had failed.
However, two years on, civil servants are still grappling to provide a decent living for their families on a meagre salary that ranges between US$150 and US$200 in a country whose cost of living for an average urban family of six stood at $498 in November, according to the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe.
Finance minister Tendai Biti said in his budget statement that he had increased the wage bill to US$1,1 billion from US$600 million and raised the tax threshold to US$225, but instead of wages doubling, government only increased the basic pay for the least-paid worker by a paltry US$6 per month, which union leaders have described as a “pittance” and an “insult”.
In addition, the government increased housing and transport allowances for the lowest-paid worker by US$6 and US$13 respectively.
The basic salary for the uniformed forces was increased by between US$8 and US$10 while their housing allowances were raised from US$9 to US$45 with transport allowances rising from US$8 to US$42.
After receiving their payment vouchers last week civil servants have threatened to go on strike until their demands are met.
Chairperson of the Apex Council, a representative body for civil servants, Tendai Chikowore told the Zimbabwe Independent they were not going to bow easily.
“We are not going to accept a continuation of the government’s pittance salaries. We have understood for a long time. We spent the whole of 2010 without any serious increment with the hope that in 2011 things will have improved and they will take (into account) our considerations.
“2011 has come and they tell us there is no money. That is not our problem. It is not our business to look for money. It is their responsibility to set up adequate funding for civil servants salaries.  If they honestly put their priorities right they would definitely find a way to pay the workers fairly. We are not satisfied and it is (the offer by government) totally unfair,” she said.
Chikowore said civil servants want a monthly salary of US$500 for the lowest paid worker and are now waiting for the government’s response.
International Socialist Organisation local leader Munyaradzi Gwisai said the government of national unity was not concerned about the plight of its workers because it was a “government of the elite”, only concerned about uplifting themselves. He said it was unfortunate that both MDCs have “joined the gravy train”.
“The government is playing with fire by taking the plight of the workers lightly. They say they do not have money but it is this government that was able to find US$50 000 for MPs to squander on petty projects and fund foreign trips,” said Gwisai.
In his 2011 budget statement, Finance minister Tendai Biti promised every MP an allocation of US$50 000 to kick-start projects that would enhance their constituencies.
In addition, Biti proposed to buy the MPs additional new vehicles and increase their monthly salaries by between 100% and 200% this year. This means his ministry would have to fork out around US$4 million for the acquisition of the new cars for about 270 legislators.
In 2009, the government spent US$6 million buying Mazda BT50 double cab trucks which were going at US$25 000 each.
In June last year his ministry in its first quarter treasury bulletin said foreign travel costs for the period to March amounted to US$5,6 million, about 1,4% of the government’s total expenditure over the same period.
Gwisai said: “What Minister Biti is trying to do is to create a minimum wage of starvation. A survey was done at the end of last year and it revealed that managers get 91 times the salary of the worker, some getting between US$15 000 and US$35 000.”
“Ideologically some policies are there to protect employers and the rich at the expense of the workers. This shows the acceleration of the neo-liberalism of this government. These policies of neo-liberalism have failed and have caused social revolts across the globe in countries like Algeria and Tunisia being the latest.”
He added that: “I hope we get to (a situation similar to) Tunisia where workers will realise that their rights are equally important and they wake up for their own emancipation. Workers from both the private and public sector must mobilise themselves to support their own demands.”
A commentator on economic justice and governance, David Takawira said civil servants’ salaries was an issue of misplaced priorities and which, if not resolved, could lead to food riots like what happened in 1998.
Takawira said: “Unless government takes timely corrective and calculated action, a re-enactment of the 1998 food-riots is a possibility at the moment.
“Minister Biti megaphones to the world how the GDP has gained ground and how the economy has grown when in actual fact the economy is not expanding opportunities for employment.
“As a result civil servants work for long hours and get very low wages. So it’s true when minister Biti says, “what doubled was the overall allocation to employment costs which includes pensions…as Ministry of Finance we do not do the actual allocation to individuals.
“So in essence government should realign its priorities and ensure that resources are channelled to the engines of the economy,” said Takawira.
For civil servants, it is a long wait for recognition.

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