Apex Council, the public servants' umbrella union, marshalled about 800 of its members on Tuesday to march to the government composite building in Harare, which houses Finance Minister Tendai Biti's office and Parliament, to demand salary increases. The Apex Council brings together the Public Service Association, the Zimbabwe Teachers' Association, the Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe, the Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe and the College Lecturers' Association of Zimbabwe.
Their petition to Parliament read: "Since independence, 2012 is the first time in the history of labour in the public sector that government reviews workers' allowances and fails to raise their salaries. Public servants cannot understand why they continue to be paid salaries below the poverty datum line with no effort by government to progressively move the salaries towards the poverty datum line levels."
The lowest-paid public worker earns $250 a month and the union is demanding that the figure be raised to $550. The public servants issued an ultimatum in July and the Apex Council has threatened a "devastating strike" if wages are not raised.
The prospect of teachers embarking on a strike appears unlikely this term, however, because schools will close next week to prepare for a national census that is scheduled to be conducted next month.
Biti, the Movement for Democratic Change-aligned secretary general, refused to meet public services union leaders, further stoking tension and a likely face-off between him and the country's largest workforce of nearly 130 000 workers. Teachers' union chief executive Manuel Nyawo said: "He [Biti] is closing down all communication, but he is going to regret his actions. A public minister should not hide from the workers. We have never seen such a minister in the past."
Progressive teachers' union secretary general Raymond Majongwe said: "It pains me that he does not want to meet us. He does not even want to hear our input in his budget consultations, but one day the chickens will come home to roost."
Political observers said the MDC was caught in an "unenviable position" because it controls the treasury and Zanu-PF hardliners could use the salary impasse to discredit the MDC in the eyes of workers.
Said political analyst Charles Mangongera: "Biti has very little fiscal space to adjust public servants' wages, given the weak revenue base of the economy. This has serious political implications, because Zanu-PF will use this as political fodder. The MDC will have to carefully manage its image and the information it conveys to convince government workers that, in the absence of real economic growth, it will not be possible to increase their salaries."
Eat what we kill
Biti slashed growth forecasts this year from 9.4% to 5.6%, blaming low diamond revenue inflows, poor harvests, investor nervousness over the indigenisation programme, a high foreign-travel bill and talk of elections as factors crippling the country's economic recovery prospects.
Instead of caving in to the demands of public servants and government departments keen to receive budgetary supplements, Biti has proposed a raft of belt-tightening measures. His "eat what we kill" policy has resulted in him proposing a salary freeze and issuing a terse warning to public workers not to take salaries for granted.
It is understood that public servants' salaries gobble 74% of government revenue each month. Trevor Maisiri, a Johannesburg-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, points out that Biti may be a pawn in an unfolding political game, because public servants know there is no money and are agitating for the release of funds from elsewhere.
"The last time the finance minister announced that there was no money for public servant salary increments, the government provided supplementary financing from elsewhere to meet part of their demands," said Maisiri.
"This, however, made them aware that, with enough pressure, they could access benefits from outside the treasury."