Carlos Matos, who has worked as a policeman in the Mozambican capital, Maputo, for the past 12 years, has to borrow a few dollars each month to supplement his US$52 wage.
He lives rent-free in a one-roomed flat; his few possessions include an ailing television, a hot plate, a fan, and photographs of his two children (aged seven and nine) that are perched beside others, now more than decade old, taken during his time in the military.
During the recent protests in Maputo against a swathe of price increases on basic commodities and services, security forces quelled violent street clashes.
Mozambique’s health minister, Ivo Garrido, told a press conference on Monday that 13 people had died in two days of rioting the week before. More than 140 others have been arrested so far for public violence and incitement to riot.
“The government doesn’t want to talk to the poor . . .(when prices go up) the ones who suffer are the poor,” Matos told Irin. “If the national minimum wage was 5 000 meticais ($142) – then fine, put the prices up, but it (government) doesn’t adjust it (minimum wage) when the prices go up.”
Mozambique introduced a minimum monthly wage of $24 in 1996; in 2008, 11 different minimum wages were introduced, which are recalibrated each year on April 1.
In May this year, Joseph Hanlon, of the Development Policy and Practice department at Britain’s Open University, published the latest minimum wage across all sectors and observed: “Except for the financial sector, all minimum wages are lower, in dollar terms, than two years ago.”
Since Hanlon’s figures were published they have fallen further in dollar terms with the weakening of the local currency. In the agricultural sector the minimum wage fell from $52 to $48, in mining from $74 to $68, in manufacturing from $77 to $71 and in financial services from $108 to $99 – the highest minimum wage set.
Sugar workers get the lowest minimum wage, which declined from $49 to $45 in a just few months.
Shrinking incomes in Mozambique – where unemployment is officially estimated at about 21 percent, in a population of 20 million – have collided with government price increases for transportation, fuel, electricity and basic foods.
Bread, a staple of the urban poor, shot up by 30 percent – a rise blamed for igniting the protests.
Inflation has also eroded spending power among the urban poor.
“Since late 2008 it (the metical) has been steadily devalued against the dollar by about 10 percent per year,” Hanlon said. In the second half of April this year, the metical weakened against the dollar by 7%.
The Frelimo government – which has been in power since 1975 and weathered a 16-year civil war – managed to reduce inflation from 70% in 1994 to 5% by 1999.
Since then inflation has hovered around 10% annually and in 2006 the currency was devalued by striking off three zeroes.
Matos has built a chicken coop under the concrete stairs of the block of flats where he lives to supplement his diet and income, most of which – $28 – is paid as maintenance for his two young children.
“The people there don’t have money – they may only know the small notes, 50 or 100 (meticais), they haven’t seen notes of 500 or 1 000 (meticais) – but they are rich because they are farmers,” he told Irin.
“(But) why would I go back to Tete, to do what? Go and die?” Matos said. “I have a house here, I have a family now; to go back would be to start at zero.”
He occasionally thinks about returning home to Tete Province in north-central Mozambique, where the rural economy is not so cash-dependent as the urban one.
“In those areas . . . they have fields and can plant – what am I going to plant here (in Maputo)? Every day I have to open my wallet,” he said. –Irin