4 Sep 2003

Strikers reject govt warning

Zambia's 120,000 striking public servants on Thursda, Sept 4, dismissed a government threat they would be sacked if they did not return to work, and called instead for the authorities to honour an agreement to pay their housing benefits. "There is total chaos in the country - let them just pay and the workers will go back to work," Civil Servants and Allied Workers Union of Zambia (CSUZ) secretary-general, Darrison Chaala, told IRIN.

The government on Wednesday described the industrial action launched on 26 August as illegal. "I am, therefore, advising all striking workers to return to work forthwith or face the consequences of their illegal action," Vice-President Nevers Mumba said in a national address. He said the government had agreed to pay public servants higher salaries, but could not afford to include housing allowances, amounting to about 40 percent of each worker's salary packet.

Trade union leaders meeting in the capital, Lusaka, on Thursday rejected as "intimidatory" Mumba's warning of dismissals if they did not return to work. "The workers have decided to ignore those threats because they know they have a genuine case. The government signed a collective agreement - it's a legally binding agreement, that's why we say we are willing to stay at home and be fired," Chaala commented.

He described the indefinite strike as "very, very successful", with government offices and institutions, including hospitals, either not working or on a go-slow. Chaala added that he expected teachers to join the strike when schools reopened on Monday.

The government introduced housing allowances in 2002 to replace a moribund system in which some public workers were entitled to accommodation, but far from all of those received it. In March this year the government agreed to a 30 percent across-the-board pay rise and a housing allowance increase. But, confronted with a forecast budget overrun of $120 million, the government rescinded the housing allowances.

The International Monetary Fund and key donors have frozen around $175 million in aid until the government closes the budget deficit. According to Chaala, implementing the allowances would cost about US $17.2 million a year. The civil servants' leader said if savings are to be made, the government should look to cuts in spending by senior officials. "There are two deputy ministers in each ministry - what for, when you have a cabinet minister, a permanent secretary and another heavyweight, an assistant secretary?" (IRIN)

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