Malawi has deployed soldiers to distribute fuel at gas stations after a strike by fuel tank drivers this week led to shortages. The drivers are pressuring the government for a minimum wage increase and to ensure local drivers get contracts they say are dominated by foreign transporters.
Tanker drivers started the strike Monday in the country's major cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu.
On Wednesday they blocked the road in the capital Lilongwe, resulting in some arrests.
Government spokesperson Gospel Kazako told a press conference Thursday that the strike is surprising, considering that government officials already addressed all the demands the drivers raised during a similar strike in November 2020.
He said among the demands was that the government should review the minimum salary for drivers, which was at about $60 per month.
"Government had to go all out listening to their problems," Kazako said. "Government made directives and this was made into law that there shouldn't be any international truck driver who should be paid less than MK140,000."
That figure is equivalent to about $170 per month.
But drivers have yet to receive the increased salaries. This, they said, is largely because their employers are going through financial difficulties due to lack of business from the government.
They said the strike is also aimed at pushing the government to award their employers local fuel supply contracts they say are dominated by foreign transporters.
This spurred truck owners to join the strike on Wednesday.
Kazako, also Minister of Information, said he believes the strike is a ploy to sabotage government operations.
George Khaki, president of the Employers Consultative Association of Malawi, said the strike is baseless.
"If they wanted to have industrial action, that industrial action should have been against their employers. Not against the government, because the government is not a party to the employment contract," he said. "This is where they are getting it wrong and it is unfortunately an unlawful strike."
The strike led to panic buying this week at the few Malawian gas stations which had fuel.
Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority said the country has enough gas to last for a month, but the problem is the failure to supply the pump stations because of the strike.
To address the problem, Kazako said the government has deployed the military to help distribute fuel.
Starting Thursday night, soldiers began escorting fuel tankers to pump stations and, in some cases, are driving the tankers themselves.
In a statement Thursday, Acting Public Information Officer for the Malawi Defense Force, Major Emanuel Kelvin Mlelemba, said the move is in line with its constitutional role in assisting civilian authorities to maintain essential services in times of emergency.
Meanwhile, the striking drivers maintain they will not resume work until their demands are met.