The move would bring back and put into sharp focus debate on the wage bill in relation to government revenues. While public servants want salary hikes, Treasury has consistently warned the wage bill is already unsustainably high and that it has no “fiscal space” to accommodate salary increases for 230 000 civil servants without plunging government further into dire straits.
The agitation for salary increases would also put the spotlight on the question whether civil servants are lowly paid or not in relative terms in the context of the Zimbabwean economy and regional salaries. Some say civil servants are poorly-paid in general terms, while others say in relative terms they are not.
The issue, which is politically sensitive, is likely to become prominent and explosive ahead of elections as politicians would want to exploit it to win votes.
Workers’ appeal to President Robert Mugabe to help resolve their grievances by July 1 came after Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who supports the civil servants’ demands, had been unable to sort out the issue. Biti has warned that government and civil servants need a reality check on the issue.
The latest letter by workers was written by the Civil Service Apex Council, which includes the Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association, Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe and the Public Service Association.
Civil servants are demanding a US$242 increase for the lowest paid worker from US$296 to US$538, but the government is already struggling to pay its US$1 billion wage bill.
Currently 64% of the national budget goes towards salaries — an unsustainable situation and this has raised debate within government, business and public circles about the civil servants’ salaries.
After its Article IV Consultation visit last year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), commenting on the issue of government’s employment costs, said: “The wage bill in Zimbabwe is one of the highest in sub-Saharan Africa”.
The IMF recommended that balancing of Zimbabwe’s budget “could be achieved through reducing the wage bill closer to the initially budgeted amount (e.g., elimination of ghost workers, strict controls on hiring, initiation of a due process for irregular civil servants).”
In the previous year, roughly six months after the introduction of the multiple currency system, the IMF after its March 2010 mission raised issues of wage bill and government spending as key concerns. It raised alarm bells over “rapid unsustainable government expenditure growth, including of wages, a large reduction in capital inflows because of increased uncertainty about the indigenisation process, and exuberant credit growth which have negatively affected the macroeconomic outlook and intensified external and banking system vulnerabilities”.
In his 2012 budget strategy paper, Finance Minister Tendai Biti made calls for more effective controls to reduce what he calls, “an unsustainably high civil service wage bill”.
“It becomes critical that measures aimed at controlling the wage bill are adopted and enforced, including implementation of the results of the payroll and skills audit freeze,” he said.
Biti also emphasised the need for a concerted effort to address longstanding irregularities on the payroll. “We must sort out all irregularities, complemented by various on-going capacity building interventions in the public service with support from countries such as China and India, as well as other co-operating partners such as African Development Bank, the World Bank and others, should strengthen the quest for a more efficient public service,” he said.
An audit has shown that government has 75 000 “ghost workers” on its payroll who were mainly recruited by Zanu PF for political reasons just before the 2008 elections and the presidential poll run-off.
Civil servants’ renewed demands are coming against this backdrop.
However, Mugabe and Tsvangirai, for political reasons, have continued to promise to resolve the situation.
Asked whether directly petitioning Mugabe would produce any results, Progressive Teacher’s Union of Zimbabwe secretary-general Raymond Majongwe said: “Going to Mugabe might not solve the issue but it will satisfy the political aims of those who think so. The issue of salaries is a political issue; it comes down to a battle between Mugabe and Tsvangirai. Those who thought of going to Tsvangirai went, those who think going to Mugabe will produce a magic wand are not going to get it (salary increase).”
Majongwe’s fiery comments sharply contrasted with the diplomatic tone of the letter which seeks Mugabe’s arbitration after the Tsvangirai-led National Joint Negotiating Council failed to produce concrete results.
“We are convinced therefore that no other office in this land other than yours understands that improved salaries and conditions of service translate into improved social service delivery,” read part of the letter. “It is with the above understanding that we request your office to intervene in our salary reviews for 2012,” the appeal reads.
On Independence eve last month, Mugabe publicly apologised to teachers for late payment of salaries and went on to claim United States and European Union sanctions on the sale of the Chiadzwa diamonds were responsible for their low wages and plight.
Civil servants in the past used to get salary increases just before elections.
At a rally in Matabeleland North less than two weeks before the March 2008 general elections, Mugabe announced he had signed a new salary schedule of huge salary increases for teachers and civil servants and “I hope they will be happy because we have worked out very good salaries”.
Treasury is currently battling to pay the 230 000-strong workforce. February’s wage bill totalled US$229 million, including January back-pay and marginal salary increments, but government only collected US$227 million. Treasury continues to operate on a month-on-month deficit, partly because of mismanagement, high government expenditure and below-target remittances from diamond sales.
Like Mugabe, Tsvangirai has said the problem is with diamonds in a different context. The premier says lack of accountability has resulted in civil servants not being well-paid.
However, analysts argue while diamond royalties could help, they are not a permanent solution. Analysts say downsizing and removing “ghost workers” is also not the solution. They say economic recovery and job creation is the best option.
Some Zimbabwean diplomats are “stranded” in foreign lands after government has failed to pay their repatriation costs at the end of their tour of duty while others risk eviction from their embassies and homes as they are unable to meet operational costs and rentals.
Whatever the situation and will happen going forward, the volatile civil servants salary issue has now become a theatre for electioneering ahead of the next polls.