THE strife within the civil service will remain commonplace, as wages continue to be significantly eroded by the country’s high inflation.
Critical social services such as health and education have been derailed as a result of frequent strikes over poor working conditions.
The reason behind the industrial action is the mismatch between wages, which are denominated in the Zimbabwean dollar and the price of goods and services, which are indexed against the United States dollar.
While the government at times has responded to the strikes by increasing salaries, the latest increase was a 40% rise last month, whereby the least-paid civil servant would earn ZW$14 528 (US$179). However, these efforts continue to lag behind inflation, which is the second highest in the world, only behind Venezuela.
“The social protection focus of this particular discussion and I think what the public is really interested to know is: has this budget made adequate provision for the salaries to be sorted out within these two sectors (health and education)?” Zimbabwe Economics Society (ZES) president Nigel Chanakira inquired at a webinar organised by ZES and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), in partnership with the Zimbabwe Independent, titled: 2021 Budget: Towards Effective Social Service Delivery.
In response, Finance minister Mthuli Ncube said the government was obligated to address the needs of the entire civil service and not just the two ministries.
“Yes. We think we have provided a decent amount in terms of salaries for these two sectors (health and education). But, you see, as a government, we have to harmonise right across the civil service; it’s not just from the two sectors of education and health which are very critical,” Ncube said.
“So, whenever we do adjustments for the sector, we have to bring the other sectors along as well, so that no one is left behind, otherwise we will have serious disparities that can cause other problems. But, again, we think that we have done justice in terms of salary budgets. We continue to allow for salary adjustments upwards like we did this year. Again, next year, there will be some salary adjustments. I don’t know when, but there is at least one that comes to mind.”
Looking at the Treasury’s expenditure plan for next year, in terms of percentages, the government plans to only increase its employment expenses by 1,5% to ZW$172,63 billion (US$2,131 billion) in 2021.
Although the annual inflation rate has been on a decline to 401,66% for November from 471,25 % for October, 659% in September, 761% in August, and 836% in July, workers are still struggling to make ends meet.
For example, last month’s salary increases, where the least-paid civil servant would earn ZW$14 528 (about US$179) and a teacher ZW$18 237 (about US$225) a month, comparatively, is lower than the cost of living for a family of five that stood at ZW$18 750 (about US$231) a month.
The need for corresponding wage growth against inflation comes as food insecurity continues to increase, caused by poor macro-economic conditions, a below-average 2020 harvest and cereal availability and Covid-19 restriction measures.
Added to this, rising unemployment and shrinking job space, are eroding salaries, thus depressing disposable incomes and consumer spending.
With nearly nine million people facing food insecurity and with international weather forecasts not pointing to any “significant” improvements conducive for crop growth in the short term, ZW$30,4 billion (US$371,32 million) has been allocated to food and nutrition security.
Broken down, this translates to ZW$284,48 in monthly allocations or US$3,44 per person.
“Just like the previous budgets, it lacked precision to the pertinent issues like job creation and food security. There’s no guarantee that this time line ministries would be disciplined and live within their budget votes,” Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary-general Japhet Moyo said in an interview with the Independent.
“It is not about whether; the ZW$30,4 billion is enough, but only if it would be made available at the appropriate time. Previously we had instances where the vote is announced, but disappears in opaque circumstances.”
He said food-insecure people were at the mercy of a prevailing toxic political environment.
“Workers lost big time when the government introduced the mono-currency regime and the subsequent previous budgets have not assisted workers. From the US$350-US$400 that the majority of workers were earning as at August 2018, none has been restored to the same levels,” Moyo said.
National Consumer Rights Association coordinator Effie Ncube said of urgent concern was the immediate and pressing needs of millions of food and nutritionally insecure Zimbabweans.
“To assure the food and nutritional security of the country, the government must invest in an array of short-, medium- and long-term imperatives. These investments should go towards optimum utilisation of farms, reliable power and fuel supply, adequate domestic and irrigation water and climate change-resilient crops and livestock,” he said.
“We need bigger dams for irrigation and every farmer in the field. The livestock herd needs to be robustly multiplied. The budget is still inadequate in this respect. More should be done to ensure the country regains its status as the food basket of the region.
“The UN and government estimate that over half of our population needs emergency food assistance. This requires billions of dollars. In this regard, more resources should have been channelled towards the Ministry of Public Service and Social Welfare to save lives from debilitating hunger. We need more resources there.”
Consumer Council of Zimbabwe chairperson Phillip Bvumbe said unless the new presumptive taxes targeting the informal sector bear fruit, consumers will remain food-insecure.
“There will be a need for more social security because people are suffering,” he said.
Ncube placed several new presumptive taxes to target the informal sector that provides between 60% and 70% of all economic activity in the country.
These new taxes were placed on transport operators, hairdressers, informal traders, cross-border traders, restaurants operators and bottle-stores and the cottage industry.
Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe founding director Godfrey Kanyenze, who was also present at the webinar, queried the rationale behind the failure to peg social protection needs against the levels that are paid to a basket of basic needs such as education, healthcare and food, in line with, for example, ILO Convention 212 on minimum social protection flow.
He said this was to avoid the scenario where households that are actually in distress are just receiving a paltry ZW$300 (US$3,66) in monthly government social protection cash pay-outs.
Heading into the 2021 National Budget, it was already underfunded by about ZW$679 billion (US$8,3 billion), as the total budget requests were ZW$1,1 trillion (US$13,44 billion), which is equal to the size of the economy, according to Ncube.
Yet, only ZW$421,61 billion (US$5,14 billion) was allocated for the 2021 National Budget.