Zim civil servants embark on strike over wages

Zimbabwe’s civil servants on Friday launched an open-ended strike for a more than four-fold hike to their salaries, piling pressure on the strained unity government struggling to fix the economy.

“Our members have declared that they are not going to work from today,” said Cecilia Alexander, president of the Public Service Association, an umbrella body for the civil servants’ unions.

The government has proposed increases of between $7 and $21 for civil servants, who are paid a flat rate of $150. They say their wages do not cover even basic living expenses.

The unions want salaries to begin from $630.

“They say they will not come back to work until government gives them something meaningful, some reasonable, something acceptable,” Alexander said after a rally with 4 000 workers in Harare.

Government workers reluctantly returned to the job one year ago as veteran President Robert Mugabe and his rival Morgan Tsvangirai formed a power-sharing Cabinet to end spiralling political violence and an economic freefall.

Most doctors, nurses, teachers and other government workers had been forced to seek other employment as their salaries evaporated under world-record hyperinflation.

They were lured back to work only when the government abandoned the worthless local currency, and Tsvangirai promised to pay them in US dollars.

But the cash-strapped government said it could only afford to pay a uniform monthly salary of $150, regardless of position or experience.

‘We have been very patient for a long time’
Donors have helped keep medical staff on the job by supplementing salaries for public health, but most government workers say they struggle make ends meet.

“The people are agitated,” Alexander said. “The government is responsible for this.
They have taken a very long time to address the plight of the workers. We have been very patient for a long time.

“The money we earn is so little we don’t know whether to call it pocket money, a tip or a token of appreciation.”

She said the lowest paid workers should receive $630, which the unions estimate is what an average family of five needs to get by.

The strike is the first by the 230 000 civil servants since the formation of the power-sharing government.

While the new government has stabilised the economy and political violence has eased, Mugabe and Tsvangirai are still bickering over the allocation of top government posts.

A Constitution-writing project, meant to pave the way to new elections, has stalled. Tsvangirai’s supporters continue to face treason charges that they say are politically motivated.

The feuding has detracted from Zimbabwe’s efforts to attract investment and rebuild shattered industries.

Empty coffers
Finance Minister Tendai Biti said on Wednesday that government simply did not have the cash to meet workers’ demands.

“Government is not a productive sector,” Biti said in the state-controlled Herald newspaper. “Our revenue levels remain depressed. We cannot draw water from a stone.”

Tendai Chikowore, head of the Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association, told the workers’ rally that the pay dispute had raised doubts about the unity government.

“When the government of national unity was formed, we rejoiced as we thought it was the political panacea to our sociopolitical and economic challenges, but today we wonder whether this was the correct premise,” he said.

“Today there is bickering over this and that. The bickering seems to be more about the scramble to high-spending lifestyle of luxurious vehicles.” - AFP

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