PUBLIC Service minister Lucia Matibenga says she is not responsible for civil servants’ salary woes.
She said civil servants salary increments could not be a decision of individual minister and, therefore, was not to blame for their poor remuneration.
NewsDay caught up with Matibenga to discuss her challenges as Public Service minister and how she hopes to solve the issue. Matibenga was appointed Public Service minister in October 2011 following the death of incumbent Elphas Mukonoweshuro.
The following are excerpts of the interview between NewsDay reporter, Veneranda Langa (ND) and Lucia Matibenga (LM).
ND: Is your trade union background of any advantage to your new role as a minister?
LM: The training I had as a trade unionist leader helps me to navigate the troubled waters. I am someone who does not need any introduction to bread and butter issues. It makes me to understand the plight of workers when things are not going well, but people have to understand the economic difficulties we are in.
ND: Would you consider your ministry as one of the most challenging ministries in the coalition government.
LM: I think it is the most challenging ministry as it is responsible for the biggest single employer in this country. Each time there is a demonstration about civil servants wages, I try my level best to solve it, but I do not lose sleep over it. I always take a position and if the employer says they are unable to pay, it is still a position.
Whenever there is a demonstration and I get bad publicity I take it as part of the job and I know someone has to do it. Unfortunately at this instance it’s me.
ND: How best do you think issues of civil service salaries can be resolved?
LM: I do not go into salary negotiations. There is a team that represents the government and a forum for the negotiations. The recent impression in the Press was that I refused to meet them to talk of wages, but I am just a facilitator and my role is to ensure negotiations take place.
To even say Matibenga is not giving people money is false. The statutes in this country explain that the minister is not part of the negotiating structure. I am not in the National Joint Negotiation Council. I only come in when there is a snag.
ND: Do you have powers to decide on salary increments?
LM: My mandate as minister does not allow me to discuss wages and salaries. I am not an all-powerful minister who has bags of money on the table that I am refusing to give to the people.
There is urgent need to appoint a properly constituted Apex Council by staff associations as it is not properly constituted. The workers have no Apex Council and the ball is on their court.
ND: Who has powers to make those decisions?
LM: When the budget was taken to Parliament, it became law and I am, therefore, not in a position to say salaries of civil servants should increase as I do not control the Budget. Parliament is the one that passes the Budget and I cannot go and change what is in the blue book single handedly.
People tend to want to complain after the law has been passed. I am aware that their remuneration is too poor, but I have to follow what is available according to the budget. I am not a super powerful minister.
ND: How soon will the public get feedback on the civil service audit?
LM: The civil service audit is complete. The Public Service Commission did a verification process and we now await that report. After getting the report, we will present it to Cabinet and then Parliament.
The verification process was complicated in that workers are scattered all over the country and our staff had to go to all areas to do the verification.
ND: How are you going to deal with the issue of pensioners, especially since most of them are wallowing in poverty with meagre pensions?
LM: My ministry and the Public Service Commission are at an advanced stage in coming up with a pension fund that would replace the pay-as-you-go pension system. It will solve all the delays in paying out pensions and issues of pensions that cannot sustain people.
ND: What challenges do you face?
LM: Obviously I face the challenges of working in a difficult economic environment. As a government of national unity, we have tried to stabilise the economy, but that does not mean we are able to satisfy the demands of workers.
It is difficult to manage a situation whereby the government is unable to pay the poverty datum line wages. All I can do is to keep the dialogue going so that we maintain industrial harmony. It is managing expectations and being able to convince people to move on.
As a woman in a difficult ministerial position, I would like to say that generally women are patient. It is the power of being a woman that keeps me going because when the workers unions and the Press vilify me, I am able to maintain my cool because
I am a woman.