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Zimbabwe Civil Servants Threaten Industrial Action As Salary Talks Hit Deadlock

Saviour Kasukuwere
Saviour Kasukuwere

Zimbabwe’s government and its workers left a meeting deadlocked, Wednesday, over the issue of salaries and bonuses, which over the year have been delayed, staggered, and in the case of bonuses, yet to be paid.

The government had called the meeting under the guise of the National Joint Negotiating Council, hoping to de-escalate the rising tensions in the country over labor and pay related issues, but reportedly failed to address the issues to the satisfaction of the worker groups.

The chairman of the Apex Council which represents government workers, Richard Gundani, said workers were disappointed at the lack of resolve.

“There was no agreement at all on today’s meeting. The worker’s demand on the day that the bonuses are going to be paid was not answered,” said Gundani. “The dates are not available from that side.

They continue to express a commitment which is verbal. But from the workers side, from the worker’s point of view, any commitment made right now, has to be made with clear dates and implementation on where we start the process of paying.”

The cash-strapped government has been struggling to meet the wage bill for its 550-thousands workers as its coffers are empty owing to the country’s worsening economic crisis.

Economic hemorrhage

Economist John Robertson said the government is unlikely to meet its obligation to workers, who make up the bulk of the workforce, because of the under-performing economy which has resulted in company shutdowns which have reduced tax revenues. Robertson says all these are a result of government’s failed policies.

“The failure comes directly from their shrinking tax collection, which is a direct consequence of the shrinking economy, and that of course is a direct consequence of the policies that have done such damage to productive capacity,” said Robertson.

Robertson said gone are the days when Zimbabwe could generate the much needed revenue.

“We used to have considerably more production from the manufacturing sector, the farming industry and even the mining sector. Mining has survived better than the others but it too is struggling, because the prices are down and we are now producing a shorter list of minerals than we used to produce.”

Government’s failure to generate revenue to pay its workers, resulting in the delays and back-tracking on bonuses, has angered many government workers, including junior and mid-level doctors as well as nurses, many of who did not report to work for several days claiming they had no money for transport and other necessities.

The health workers had rejected the government’s offer of $1 a day for transport till their January 5th payment day, saying it was not only an insult but not enough. The doctors and nurses have since been paid, confirmed Dr. Fortune Nyamande, president of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association, but he warned they would embark on another industrial action on January 31st if they do not received their bonuses.

Gundani said more industrial actions would follow if the government does not find a way to pay workers. He said the government must prioritize better.

“Even given that situation, they can afford to pay a bonus and they can afford to pay our salaries, for us it is a matter of priority,” said Gundani. Adding that, "And even government itself has conceded that they can afford to pay the bonuses, that is only a matter of time.”

Robertson agrees that lack of priorities has strayed the government’s focus from paying its workers.

Lack of priority and many other government workers says the government has an obligation to pay its workers, and it should find the means to

“The government does not overcome its extravagance because it is still buying new motor cars, for ministers and deputy ministers, and reserve bank governors and military generals all these people still get privileges and the government inclinations don’t change,” Robertson said.

Other civil servants angered by delayed pay, include teachers who’s salary was not only delayed until just before the New Year, but also deducted by amounts of up to $45 from their salaries for pensions.

The teachers and other public workers argue that deducting any money from their salaries is unsustainable as they are not earning much. Government is also trying to reduce its monthly wage bill estimated at $150 million and trainee teachers are the hardest hit after the government reduced their allowances from $329 to $157 monthly.

But government contends it cannot sustain pensioners as it has not been deducting money since 2009.

Ticking time bomb

The president of the Progressive Teachers Union, Takavafira Zhou, said the government was negotiating in bad faith and therefore, ““sitting on a potential powder-keg that can explode any time.”

In a statement released it released Wednesday, following the meeting, the group said the government showed no commitment to paying them long standing bonuses. The statement also said government refused to commit to reducing the deductions to at most $10, as unanimously advanced by workers' representatives. The government was also in the process of introducing new deductions of $27 Health Care Insurance and $11 to the National Social Security Authority ( NSSA) Bank with effect from January without consulting civil servants.

The group threatened further industrial action saying that’s the only language the government understands.

“The only language which the rogue elements in government may understand very well is the language of industrial action and teachers must decide to walk that road as a matter of urgency.”

Asked what options the government has at this point to appease its workers, Robertson said there’s only one unlike option.

“Part of the answer is to borrow, if you can’t get the money from taxes. But we have such a poor record of repaying debt that no-body wants to lend us anything.

Local government minister Savior Kasukuwere said he was not available to comment on the situation, when contacted by VOA’s Studio 7.