The strike by civil servants demanding a doubling of basic wages could likely hurt the education sector as thousands of schoolchildren were turned away on the first day of the five-day industrial action, although business went on as usual at many government offices.
It is clear most teachers will not do their work as the Apex Council umbrella body of government employees urged its members to stay away to press government to review their salaries.
In and around Harare and elsewhere in the countryside, schoolchildren returned home mid-morning.
It is important to say the five-day stayaway this week follows a similar call for a one-day strike which the Apex Council declared 70% successful last week.
The workers want across-the-board pay rises including a raise from $250 to $538 a month for the lowest-paid government employees, medical insurance and an allowance for workers based in rural areas.
One would think the inclusive government could have avoided the industrial action by engaging the civil servants’ representatives, but it chose to ignore their calls hence the civil servants were left with no option but to withdraw their labour.
This has led to a souring relationship between civil servants and government. In that vein, Apex Council members have dismissed Public Service minister Lucia Matibenga’s posturing as a non-event.
However, all is not yet lost. It is our hope that today’s meeting of the National Joint Negotiating Council (NJNC), which brings together the government and unions representing State workers, will come up with some arrangement that will cushion the civil servants.
“Government now has a position paper on salaries and conditions of service for Public Servants which will be presented to the NJNC on Wednesday 25 January, 2012 (today),” Matibenga said on Monday.
Zimbabwe has had so many ups-and-downs in the past, the worst being the economic meltdown which led to the formation of the wobbly inclusive government in 2009.
Hence, one would hope the inclusive government will avoid a confrontation with its 235 000-strong workforce.
Civil servants, particularly teachers, nurses and doctors, have been striking on and off for better salaries since 2007.
The situation came to a head in 2008 when staff shortages forced State hospitals to close some units and teacher strikes left only 50 days of classes in the whole year. The country does not need a repeat of these sad memories.
The economy has begun recovering after a decade-long downturn, following a power-sharing agreement by long-time rivals President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in the wake of the violent 2008 polls.
Why has government not responded to the strike or the workers’ demands to avoid this showdown in the first place?
After all, what the government employees are asking for is nothing out of the ordinary – they want food on their tables.
It is a fact that about a third of government employees are not thought to actually exist, according to Finance minister Tendai Biti.
Hence, so much of the current salary payments could be fraudulently claimed by people using fictional names.
That is an area which also needs urgent government attention so that whatever is being siphoned out could be redirected towards civil servants’ welfare.
It is our hope that an all-encompassing deal for civil servants is found to end the strike that has potential to upset the country’s education, health and other sectors.