March 6, 2003

Nationwide Strike Looming

A nationwide strike is looming after Zambia's largest labour movement issued an ultimatum to the government to improve public service wages and conditions of service by the end of March. The 250,000-strong Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) is demanding an across the board increase that would raise the salary of the lowest public worker to at least K1.5 million (293 U.S. dollars) after tax. The union also wants to halve income tax rate from the current 30 percent to 15 percent.

Leonard Hikaumba, ZCTU president says the unions are tired of government's laissez faire attitude towards their demands. ”If the government does not address our demands for a wage increase we are going on a nationwide strike ... nothing is going to stop us,” he warns. The workers demands coincide with government's recent purchase of 4 x 4 vehicles for the newly elected 150 legislators and cabinet ministers' 30 percent salary increments. ''We cannot allow this kind of discrimination and unfair distribution of the national cake particularly when the people who produce the cake receive a raw deal. The impending strikes, by public service workers, will emphasise that workers have been more than patient and have had enough of government's empty promises,'' Hikaumba says.

The workers demands have struck a chord with civil society and opposition political parties who argue that public servants cannot live on their current salaries. ''Everyone talks about the corruption in the public service, but no one thinks to ask why this is so ... people have to find means to feed their families,'' says Emily Joy Sikazwe, an activist. She says low life expectancy, lack of decent education, poor access to basic needs including food and health care, can all be attributed to poor remuneration.

Statistics from the World Bank show that 70 percent of Zambia's working population earn less than 100 U.S. dollars a month. The monthly take home pay for teachers, nurses and police officers is around 300,000 Kwacha (59 U.S. dollars). According to the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflections (JCTR), which carries out monthly cost of living surveys, an average family of six needs more than one million Kwacha (196 U.S. dollars) a month to meet basic needs. ''A key development issue in any country is to ensure that people are given incomes that are consistent with the demands of decent living,'' the JCTR statement says.

Under former president Frederick Chiluba the government embarked on an IMF inspired radical Public Sector Reform Programme (PRSP) to trim down the bloated public service from 150,000 to 80,000. Those who remained in employment could then be ''properly'' remunerated and in turn motivated. But the plan, backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), boomeranged when government announced it had no money to pay retrenchment packages neither did it have the funds to increase salaries. Hikaumba questions where the money to hold almost round the year by-elections comes from. ''If there is money for globe trotting and other political activities, then government can find the money to pay workers decent wages. It is a matter of priorities,” he says.

Government has pointed out that large scale public spending is hamstrung by its obligations to service Zambia's 6.5 billion U.S. dollar debt. The 2003 budget sets aside 108.3 million U.S. dollars for debt servicing. The government argues that regular debt servicing will assure continued debt relief to Zambia. But, the JCTR questions whether it is morally right to starve children today in the hope that there will be food tomorrow. A two percent fuel hiked at the end of January further eroded the purchasing power of workers as prices of food and transportation also rose correspondingly. A bag of mealie meal previously 38,000 Kwacha (7.4 U.S. dollars) rose to58,000 Kwacha (11.4 U.S. dollars). Many families have resorted to ”clubbing money” together to buy one bag of the cereal and share it.

University of Zambia (UNZA) lecturers, demanding pay increments, improved conditions of service and payment of arrears, have already gone on strike. The opening of this year's semester, which was to have been on Feb 3, now hangs in balance. Trywell Kalusopa, president of the UNZA Lecturers and Researchers Union, says his members will not call off the strike action until all their outstanding arrears are paid out. ''The government talks about the brain drain and the falling standards of education, but they do not do anything to retain staff or even motivate us,'' he says. Lecturers' take home pay ranges between K1million (196 U.S. dollars) to K3 million (587 U.S. dollars). The lecturers do not get any medical benefits neither do they get educational allowances or transport. Most of the time, lecturers have to supplement their income by ”moonlighting”, getting research contracts and ”small jobs” especially at the United Nations.

Kalusopa says it is shameful that academicians have to resort to strike action to get the government's attention. ''It should be a matter of dialogue as professional people. We should be above this kind of confrontation and should be concentrating on development issues,'' he says. He says the theme for this year's budget, ”Food Security through Production and Job Creation'', is meaningless because Zambians starve not because they are unemployed but because their pay cheques do not make ends meet. ''I think this is the only country in the world where one can be gainfully employed and still starve,'' says Kalusopa. (IPS)

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