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Country Grinding to a Halt

Striking workers demand pay in dollars and rands as local currency effectively worthless.
By Jabu Shoko
Private- and public-sector strikes are adding to Zimbabwe’s woes as pressure mounts for workers to be paid in foreign currency in the wake of the dollarisation of the country’s economy.

With the Zimbabwe dollar continuing to lose value every day due to hyperinflation and the general mismanagement of the economy by President Robert Mugabe and his subordinates, labour unions are putting pressure on the cash-strapped government and on weary private-sector employers to pay their workforce in US dollars or South African rands, the two currencies that have replaced the worthless local currency and are widely used, even in remote areas.

For the past three weeks, workers at government parastatal the National Railways of Zimbabwe, NRZ, have refused to work, protesting over low pay and poor working conditions, joining thousands of employees in the private sector who have not bothered to report for duty in the new year.

On January 21 the country’s postal service, ZimPost, ground to a halt as workers went on strike, demanding that they be remunerated in US dollars or rands.

Not to be outdone, employees of the Zimbabwe National Water Authority, the country’s sole supplier of water, which has been blamed for the erratic supply of clean water, stopped working on January 22 and in Harare and Bulawayo local-government employees have withdrawn their labour, effectively crippling service delivery in the country’s capital and second-largest city.

Other government departments and parastatals are reportedly on go-slow strikes, while the nation’s teachers as well as doctors employed in public service have vowed not to return to their posts until government accedes to their demand to be paid in foreign currency.

Takavafira Zhou, president of the militant Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, PTUZ, told a public meeting on January 22, called to discuss the chaos in the country’s education sector, that when schools eventually open (the start of the school year has already been postponed once) the union’s members will refuse to enter their classrooms until their demands are met.

And Kudzai Chimedza, president of the Hospital Doctors Association, told the privately-owned Zimbabwe Independent on January 23 that even junior doctors would not resume work unless working conditions and salaries improved.

Major hospitals were forced to close down last year after healthcare staff downed tools in protest over low salaries and poor working conditions, an action which coincided with the outbreak of cholera that has reportedly killed more than 2,000 people.

Executives of PUTZ, which has continued to be a thorn in the government’s side and is accused of having links with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, spent last week addressing meetings all over the country to lobby teachers not to report for duty until the government met their demands.

In a rare show of solidarity the Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association, ZIMTA, a rival organisation which, rightly or wrongly, is thought to be close to the ruling ZANU-PF, is also mobilising its members.

“We are demanding salaries in foreign currency, which is definitely in order following the developments in the market,” Sifiso Ndlovu, acting chief executive of ZIMTA told IWPR. “How can we survive without this intervention?”

Failure to address the salary issue, Ndlovu said, would obviously have a negative impact on service delivery in education.

“Schools may fail to open, teachers will fail to attend classes and children will lose important learning time, with serious repercussions for the standards and quality of education,” he said.

The start of the new school year has been delayed by two weeks because last year’s public examination papers have not been marked, as markers, too, have demanded payment in foreign currency. The schools were initially scheduled to open on January 13 but this has now been put back to January 27.

Lovemore Matombo, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, ZCTU, the country’s largest labour confederation, told IWPR that paying workers in foreign currency would cushion them from the spiraling prices of goods and services.

“The general council of the ZCTU has resolved that all our affiliates and the …workforce should negotiate wages in terms of the US dollar, failing which we will withdraw our labour,” said Matombo.

Taking a cue from the ZCTU, Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, ZUJ, president Matthew Takaona wrote to all media houses on January 20 informing them of the body’s resolution on wage negotiations.

“For the compelling reasons cited by the ZCTU General Council, it is instructive that all works councils comply and all workers be paid in foreign currency,” reads part of Takaona’s letter to media employers.

According to respected Harare economists John Robertson, it might simply prove impossible for government and companies to accede to the demands for payment in foreign currency. “Business can’t borrow foreign currency to pay salaries,” he said, pointing out that loans were given for investment not to fund expenses.

He warned that the country should brace for more strikes unless a political solution was found to the myriad economic woes and said the challenge was to generate the necessary foreign currency through exports, which is currently not happening.

“These strikes point to the desperate need for answers from government, and not simply the usual threats,” he said.

According to Robertson, it became inevitable that there would be an increased demand for foreign currency after the government, in September last year, licensed about 1,000 shops to receive payment for their goods and services in foreign currency.

Many of the country’s industries have reportedly failed to open this year because of uncertainty about the economy. Industrialists had pinned their hopes on the successful formation of a government of national unity which would satisfy the three parties to the power-sharing agreement, Mugabe and the two MDC factions let by Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara.

These hopes were scotched by the abortive talks in Harare on January 19, which broke up once more over the failure of the parties to agree on the allocation of ministries.

A renewed effort to salvage the deadlocked power-sharing deal take place in South Africa on Tuesday January 27.

Robertson warned that should the three politicians fail once more to reach agreement, the country can expect yet more industrial action.

Jabu Shoko is the pseudonym of an IWPR-trained journalist in Zimbabwe.

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