Zimbabwe government feels pressure from restive civil service

19:32, January 13, 2010      

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By Tichaona Chifamba

The refusal by Zimbabwe's teachers to work on the first day of the school year on Tuesday is just but a tip of the iceberg with regards to the labor problems dogging the country and the pressure the government has to endure.

The teachers refused to take their classes insisting that they would only do so after they had been informed of their new salaries by their unions.

This is not the first time since the formation of the inclusive government in February 2009 that teachers have refused to take classes over salaries.

Education, art, sport and culture minister David Coltart had to convince them at the beginning of the third term to return to work, arguing that the government did not have enough funds to meet their demands.

In the same year, junior doctors spent time reporting to their stations but doing no work, also demanding higher salaries.

"We have our concerns, which we believe should be addressed because we have been neglected for too long," an official from the country's biggest teacher organization, the Zimbabwe Teachers' Association, said at the weekend.

The teachers' latest action came as the government and unions representing civil servants reached a stalemate over new salaries. The government offered 236 U.S. dollars for the highest worker, which the unions rejected as too little compared to their demands of a minimum monthly salary of between 500 U.S. dollars and 600 U.S. dollars.

Civil servants have been earning 150 U.S. dollars across the board for the past year and are now demanding more, accusing the government of taking them for granted.

However, teachers have generally been better rewarded than their colleagues in the civil service with parents giving them financial incentives to keep them in class.

Others conduct "extra lessons" to boost their wages. This practice is generally frowned upon by many people because the teachers do little during official hours and then work hard during the "extra lessons" which are not attended by children whose parents fail to pay.

Although the government has allowed the teachers to get incentives from parents, teachers' organizations are not happy with the arrangement, arguing that their members in rural areas where the country's poor live do not enjoy the same benefits. Thismeans, therefore, that wage distortions now exist among teachers, even in urban areas where some "elite" schools offer more than their counterparts in high-density areas.

Nurses working in government hospitals are also not happy with alleged delays by the Health Services Board in negotiating new conditions of service with them. The board determines government medical staff's conditions of service, which are, however, generally aligned to those of other government employees.

The 236, 000-strong civil servants now want the lowest salary to be pegged at the 500 U.S. dollars breadline, a figure which, although realistic, is way above what the government can afford.

According to the consumer watchdog the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, the breadbasket was at 488 U.S. dollars as of December 2009.

In his budget for the current financial year, Finance Minister Tendai Biti allocated 600 million U.S. dollars towards civil servants' salaries, which was about 40 percent of the 1.44 billion U.S dollars anticipated revenue.

He described the current financial environment as difficult, adding that meaningful review and improvement of public servants' conditions of service inclusive of remuneration and other benefits like transport and housing allowances, training loan and pension benefits could not be fully implemented.

As a starting point in addressing wage problems, Biti removed the blanket allowance of 150 U.S. dollars and replaced it with a package that recognizes skills, experience and grades. However, it will now be a matter of one earning slightly more than the other, yet all will be earning little.

The government must now do all it can, albeit with very limited resources, to avert a crippling industrial action which can derail its plans for a better economy and living conditions for its citizens.

Source: Xinhua
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