ZANU PF and government hardliners and populists are making Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa’s job increasingly complicated and unbearable as they seek to stall his civil service reforms by blocking retrenchments in the civil service, widely seen as a necessary evil to drastically reduce the unsustainable bloated wage bill.
Owen Gagare/ Elias Mambo
The hardliners fear Zanu PF would lose support ahead of the 2018 general elections if government massively retrenches workers or allows companies to continue dismissing workers willy-nilly.
According to the Zanu-PF aligned Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions, about 20 000 formal sector workers have been thrown onto the streets as a result of terminations triggered by a Supreme Court ruling on July 17 that allows employers to lay off workers on three months’ notice without retrenchment packages.
Last week Chinamasa indicated that government wanted to reduce the wage bill which gobbles over 80% of expenditure to below 40% through a cocktail of measures including, by implication, retrenchments.
Prior to that Chinamasa made the same promises last year and announced the intention during the 2015 budget presentation last November.
However, there is resistance and those pursuing the political route have found expression in Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare minister Prisca Mupfumira who insists government is against job cuts, and is pushing for austerity measures instead.
Mupfumira says government will not retrench but will cut costs, immediately raising questions as to how authorities will reduce costs without retrenching or reducing salaries, given that most ministries are gravelly underfunded. Fierce resistance to Chinamasa played out in cabinet this week as some senior ministers came out guns blazing opposing retrenchments, although there was general agreement that the Supreme Court had correctly interpreted the law when it reaffirmed that employers can lay off workers without giving them retirement packages upon giving them three months’ notice.
The hardliners, who are looking at events with an eye on the 2018 general elections, also believe the widespread retrenchments occurring in the private and public sectors would fuel the party’s already waning popularity. “Everyone in cabinet is a businessperson one way or the other so they have an understanding of how tough the economic situation is. But some are been caught up in a conflict of interests as they are also looking at the implications of retrenching,” said a senior government official.
“There is now a clash between the business group and the clique of populists. Hardliners and populists believe that Chinamasa’s move will jeopardise their 2018 election prospects.” Demagognes fear retrenchments would be politically disastrous for government–which thrives on populist policies — moreso after Zanu PF controversially won the 2013 general elections on the back of a make-believe promise to create 2,2 million jobs between 2013 and 2018.
Those afraid of retrenchments say if government lays off workers, it would be an admission of failure which in any case the continued slide of the economy attests to — and a confirmation that the wishy-washy five year economic blue print ZimAsset has dismally failed to yield the desired results.
Chinamasa and a group of reformists are however taking an economic approach and realise government has to urgently reduce its employment costs to avoid disaster.
The wage bill has thus become an albatross around the government’s neck and a political battleground. Officials say government will have to make tough decisions soon to avoid its operations being paralysed by lack of funds.
In the meantime, however, cabinet seems intent on a compromise as it approved proposed ammendments to the Labour Act in a bid to balance the competing interests of employers and employees.
Poor policies, which have led to company closures and job losses, have resulted in a shrinking tax base, which in turn has seen government resources dwindling.
The government’s patronage system, officials said, is also to blame as the civil service is keeping many senior officials who have reached retirement age and thousands of ghost workers on the payroll. The scenario is also prevalent in the security sector.
In the army, for example, the recommendation is that one should retire after serving for 20 years, but most senior officers have been in service since 1980, having participated in the liberation war.
“A big number of senior civil servants and high ranking officials in the security sector have over the years taken retirement packages but remained in the public service, thus contributing to the huge wage bill. Others are well past the retirement age but continue to serve, enjoying the huge perks that go with their positions,” said a senior government official.
“Most of the officials in this bracket are strong Zanu PF activists and have used their positions to prop up the party, and are therefore unlikely to be touched.” Officials also say that most departments in the civil service where top heavy, a problem which is also common in the security sector.
“Take the Zimbabwe Republic Police for example; there are four deputy commissioner generals and five commissioners and several senior assistant commissioners and assistant commissioners. In the past (police commissioner general Augustine) Chihuri had two deputies, while there were no commissioners, but still the police force was efficiently run.”
In April Zanu PF hardliners led by President Robert Mugabe blocked Chinamasa’s bid to freeze bonus payments, exposing growing internal policy contradictions.