Zimbabwe's national unity government is again in gridlock, this time over so-called ghost workers who have moved to center stage as the government looks for the means to increase civil service salaries without driving the national budget into deficit.
The Movement for Democratic Change formation led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said the alleged ghost workers include many youth militia members who were improperly put on the national payroll by the former ZANU-PF government, and that many millions can be saved if they are dismissed from ward-level positions.
The Cabinet is sharply divided on the issue while the unity government principals were unable to reach a consensus on the fiscal and political muddle.
The government was put in an awkward position last week when negotiators for public workers announced they had hammered out a deal with government negotiators under which the lowest-paid state employees would be paid US$253 a month. Civil servants were jubilant until it became clear that the deal had not received Cabinet approval.
Since then, ZANU-PF has pushed for the government to ratify the pay increase which President Robert Mugabe promised state workers months ago, while Mr. Tsvangirai and Finance Minister Tendai Biti, secretary general of his party, have dug in against the increases saying the government is too financially strapped to afford them.
The Tsvangirai MDC formation has made the case that a pay increase for civil servants would be more affordable if public payrolls could be purged of "ghost workers," a term covering not only no-show or deceased state workers, but also the youth militia said to have been hired by the thousands by ZANU-PF as rural political enforcers.
ZANU-PF ministers refused to adopt a report prepared by consultants Ernst & Young on ghost workers. It was the second report the party has dismissed. It previously rejected a 2009 report by Auditor and Comptroller General Mildred Chiri which said the youth ministry illegally employed more than 10,000 youths during the 2008 elections.
Estimates of the number of ghost workers range from 13,000 according to the MDC formation of Industry Minister Welshman Ncube to 75,000 according to the MDC wing led by Prime Minister Tsvangirai. The International Monetary Fund reckons there are 14,000 ghost workers on state pay lists and another 38,000 irregularly hired workers.
Public Service Minister Eliphas Mukonoweshuro said the cabinet has formed an inter-ministerial task force of experts to review the consultancy report on ghost workers.
ZANU-PF Youth Minister Saviour Kasukuwere accused the MDC of politicking. “There are no ghost workers in the public service and I think the MDC is making unnecessary noise about this issue,” said Kasukuwere, whose portfolio includes indigenization.
Finance Minister Biti has warned that increased civil servant salaries would force the government to cut funding for health, education and other critical social programs.
In a document reviewing aspects of public service pay submitted to the president, prime minister and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, Biti argued that an increase to the proposed US$253 a month will result in a US$400 million deficit for this year.
Estimated employment costs including medical insurance and pensions will hit US$1.8 billion against a budgeted US$1.4 billion, Biti said.
Economist John Robertson said the finance minister is correct in saying tax collections cannot support a wage increase. Commentator Bekithemba Mhlanga said ZANU-PF should not be twisting Biti’s arm to push an unworkable populist agenda.
Students, meanwhile, said the stalemate over state sector pay is affecting education at all levels and if continued could roll back the progress made since the unity government was launched in early 2009. Students Solidarity Trust Program Coordinator Masimba Nyamanhindi said students want to see a workable solution as soon as possible.