Civil servants reel from austerity measures

WHILE expected to help government cut costs by nearly US$400 million annually if fully implemented, the Civil Service Audit recommendations approved recently by cabinet spell austerity measures and bad news for lowly paid civil servants. They will also have the negative impact of worsening the unemployment situation, making further mockery of government’s electoral pledge to create 2,2 million jobs.

Kudzai Kuwaza

The audit carried out between February and April this year recommends far-reaching reforms to meet the cash-strapped government’s target of reducing the wage bill from over 80% to under 40% of revenue as indicated by Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa in his mid-term fiscal policy presentation.

The measures, which will see civil servants further forced to tighten their belts, include the cutting of student teacher allowances from US$329 to US$157 a month for more than 12 000 student teachers (a slash of more than 50%) and the re-introduction of bus fares. Workers would also contribute towards their pensions, further reducing their salaries.

To add to civil servants financial burden, government earlier this year ordered civil servants staying in one-bedroomed state accommodation in high-density areas to pay US$50, up from US$15; US$105 (from US$20) for two-bedroomed houses, and US$150 for three-bedroomed houses, up from US$25.

All this will further hit the pockets of civil servants still waiting for President Robert Mugabe to fulfil his pre-2013 election promises that they would get salaries linked to the poverty datum line.

Government’s latest measures are expected to result in savings of US$388 729 012 per annum (US$32 421 211 monthly), in line with an agreement between authorities and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which is being implemented under the Staff-Monitored Programme. However, it is unclear by how much government needs to cut its wage bill given the fluctuating figures for the number of civil servants.

Estimates vary between 280 000 and 550 000.

But the measures are likely to be inadequate in bringing the wage bill to desired levels. It has been argued, for instance, that there is need to cut foreign trips, especially by Mugabe which cost a whopping US$25 million in the first five months of this year. There is need, analysts and commentators have suggested, to cut down on the fleet of luxury vehicles purchased for ministers and other senior government officials as this would complement the austerity measures.

Government has resisted acknowledging the findings of Ernst & Young India which established that more than 75 000 ghost workers, including 6 861 employed in one day in one ministry, are part of the civil service and removing them. Nor is there any mention of laying off about 10 000 youth officers said to have been employed on partisan lines by former Indigenisation minister Saviour Kasukuwere, largely drawn from the ruling Zanu PF party
The freezing of teachers and lecturers’ recruitment has dire consequences for graduates being churned out of various universities and colleges, including the more than 2 300 students who graduated at the National University of Science and Technology last week.

It will worsen unemployment already exacerbated by the dismissal of nearly 30 000 workers using a July 17 Supreme Court ruling that allowed employers to give three months’ notice to workers without paying a retrenchment package.
The impact of the freezing of recruitment by government has had a devastating impact on the health sector where more than 3 000 nurses in the country are not employed at a time most health facilities are operating with skeleton staff.

Speaking at the Community Working Group on Health annual conference in Harare last month, Health Services Board chairman Lovemore Mbengeranwa said while Treasury had no money to employ more health personnel, the country was facing a critical shortage of nurses.

Most public health facilities were left with skeletal staff and the situation was worsened when the government put a freeze on recruitment, leaving thousands of nurses stranded upon completion of their studies.
Among the findings of the government audit is that in the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, schools are overstaffed by 5 588 teachers. The report recommended that recruitment of temporary and relief teachers be put on hold until excess staff is absorbed.

In the Higher Education ministry, the audit established that teacher training and polytechnic colleges are overstaffed by 1 716 lecturers before recommending a freeze on fresh recruitments until excess staff is redeployed. The audit also prescribes the abolishing of posts such as those of data capturers in line ministries reducing the number of jobs available in various ministries.

The rising unemployment levels are a tragedy and add to the lost generation, according to economist John Robertson.
“It is another tragedy,” he said. “The overstaffing of teachers and lecturers could be as a result of shrinkage in enrolment of students as people cannot afford for education. This is a further indication of the decline of the economy. This is likely to result in many emigrating to other countries, with some selling recharge cards or becoming vendors and cross-border traders.”

The proposed austerity measures have not gone down well with civil servants representative bodies who complain of not being consulted over an exercise that has widespread repercussions for its members.

Civil servants’ representative body Apex Council president Richard Gundani told our sister paper NewsDay this week that they had been no consultation in the latest pronouncements by Public Service minister Prisca Mupfumira.
“We are learning of these measures through the media like everyone else, which is very disturbing to say the least. Government, in our view, could have handled this issue better because the only thing this kind of behaviour serves is to stoke negative sentiments towards whatever programme that they come up with,” Gundani said.

“It is not fair to do that and government knows this. When pronouncements that have a fundamental impact on how institutions function are made from top to bottom, they have an uncanny effect of producing discord and negativity.”

The Apex Council, Gundani said, had “consistently” asked government to provide a clear programme and details of how it was going to handle the issue of civil service rationalisation.

That programme remains uncertain as, despite evidence to the contrary, government insists it can sufficiently slash the wage bill without retrenching workers.

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