THE new ZANU-PF government faces a litmus test as it needs to make good on its election promise to civil servants who wasted no time last month in presenting their salary demands.
The latest wage negotiations between government and the civil servants have set the stage for a showdown, which has been long in coming since the formation of the unity government in February 2009.
The civil servants, at nearly 230 000 workers, make up the largest workforce in the country and have been agitating for salary hikes to match the poverty datum line (PDL).
The PDL is currently pegged at US$550.
The Apex Council — comprising unions representing the government workers except for the uniformed forces — has come up with a position paper outlining its salary demands.
The position paper is believed to have been handed over to Nicholas Goche, the Minister for Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, who is treading a thin line.
Ahead of the elections, ZANU-PF pledged to improve the material and working conditions for its employees.
Goche is therefore under pressure to avoid outright dismissal of the salary demands while at the same time being sensitive to the State’s coffers which are running dry.
In their position paper, the Apex Council wants salaries to be adjusted to US$540 for the least paid worker, from the present US$297.
A Rural Service Allowance to cover mainly teachers, doctors and nurses put at 30 percent of their pay is also being requested.
The Apex Council argues that the majority of the civil servants are stationed in rural areas since nearly 70 of Zimbabweans live in the countryside.
“In order to incentivise, attract and retain civil servants to remain in these difficult areas, we demand that a Rural Service Allowance be pegged at 30 percent of one’s basic salary,” it said.
Since January, government has only been able to effect a measly five percent salary increment to the civil servants — indicative of the deep financial hole the government finds itself in.
During the days of the inclusive government, the then finance minister Tendai Biti had declined to increase the salaries citing the unavailability of funds.
Civil servants’ remuneration gobble nearly 70 percent of the government’s monthly revenue although it has been said in the past that substantial amounts are being paid to ghost workers.
Should President Robert Mugabe rush in to raise the salaries of civil servants without the resources to fund the increased wage bill, his administration would have begun to dig its own grave.
With the country’s economy showing no signs of coming out of the woods anytime soon, budgets overrun would unleash dire consequences on the economy which remains in comatose.
Giving in to the demands would also precipitate a domino effect as of other wage strikes in different sectors of the economy may follow.
The banking sector already saw a strike at Barclays Bank last week, in which workers were demanding a revision of their salaries.
“Giving in will also trigger other labour sectors to weigh in with robust demands for similar review of their wages and salaries, threatening nationwide labour unrest. If government also does not agree, this will set a collision course with civil servants and the credibility of President Mugabe will be exposed after he promised the civil servants a pay hike,” said Trevor Maisiri, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“It is a difficult space for government, but one that shows that the landscape would be more challenging for the next five years as the whole nation is looking for delivery rather than political rhetoric and false promises”.
Political commentator, Khanyile Mlotshwa, said it was early days for the new ZANU-PF government to want to make good on its promises, without first calculating the likely impact.
“I think the government will likely settle for a compromise, that is they (as government) and the civil servants meet half way…it is clear that the government is struggling. If they give in wholesale to the demands they are likely to face problems paying the civil servants,” said Mlotshwa.
“On the other hand they don’t want to disappoint, they want to create the impression that as a ZANU-PF government they are better than the previous Government of National Unity (GNU). This is the dilemma that the civil servants demands present for the government.”
Another school of thought intimated that despite the signs on the wall that the government at present could do very little to change the material position of public workers, ZANU-PF could go on and take the “risk” and adjust the civil servants salaries in line with its populist agenda.
“ZANU PF will likely take the risk and give-in to civil servants salary demands as a way of fulfilling its election manifesto. I say ‘risk’ because the government has no money at least judging by the statements of the previous GNU government.
“And salaries are already taking-up more than 70 percent of State revenue on a month by month basis. If ZANU-PF accesses all revenue from diamonds sales and plugs loopholes in tax collection, then there is a chance that the salary demands could be met,” said Rashweat Mukundu, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.
Tony Hawkins, an economics professor at the University of Zimbabwe, said Patrick Chinamasa, the new Finance Minister, should be “tough” so as to resist the demands that will come his way.
Chinamasa is no newcomer to the Treasury portfolio, having previously served as the acting finance minister in January 2009.
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