Ever since Malawi devalued its currency by about 50 percent against the United States dollar and let it float, the country has seen public and private sector employees staging sit ins in a bid to compel their respective employers to raise their perks to cope with the subsequent inflation that has seen prices of commodities skyrocketing.
There are institutions that, when they decide to down their tools, an immediate adverse impact is seen or felt. For instance, when university dons strike, students suffer. Likewise, when nurses sit- in, patients lose lives; when water board staff strike, people queue with jerry cans before wells of unsafe water. Sometimes, they are coerced to use water so sparingly that they go to work without taking a bath. As for Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) workers, they threaten with a national blackout. This forces those in the corridors of power to adjust their remuneration packages accordingly.
However, on the other hand, there are equally important civil servants who cannot dare stage a strike. Not because they do not want to, rather, they know they cannot be heard or risk being sacked. Why? â€“ The nature of their job, despite being similarly important, is superficially deemed useless simply because it takes time to see the results of their job, unlike a nurse who, when they give you a pain killer today, you can see the change even the same day.
These professions largely comprise extension workers such as Agriculture Extension Development Officers (AEDOs), Community Development Assistants, Forestry Assistants, Water Development Assistants and Health Surveillance Assistants (HSAs).
These are always the neglected and nobody listens to them when they cry foul over salaries. As a former AEDO myself, I remember one year when we threatened to strike, a whole line Ministry official told us that â€œKani alimi asiya kulima mukapanda kuwalangiza? You think farmers will stop farming if you donâ€™t assist them?â€
This is a clear testimony that government values professions that bring about short term gains more than those with long term gains.
A farmer who adopts a technology of conservation agriculture can wait for three or so years before they reap the fruits. Likewise, the benefits of a woodlot or afforestation cannot be seen the day one plants the trees. If it wasnâ€™t for the HSAs, our health facilities would have been more overcrowded than they do now since the HSAs play a great role in primary health care and civic educating the masses on disease prevention. Only that an untrained eye cannot see the direct link between an HSA and the reduced mortality rates in the communities.
So, in all fairness, should one be disadvantaged simply because their career brings no instantaneous change? Should an extension worker suffer because their fields are not marketable in the United Kingdom?
My plea to government is that, as you are raising the salaries of those who have squeezed you to do so, also consider the extension worker with the same percentage even though he/she has not gone to the street for the same cause. The fact that their job has no instant benefits does not disqualify them from enjoying what their counterparts in other professions are enjoying.
One may wonder what makes me say all this. Just compare the salary, benefits and other incentives of an extension worker (Grade K) in the Ministry of Agriculture and those of another Grade K in the Ministry of Health or the Judiciary, especially those with Diplomas and you will appreciate what I am talking about.
You will find that nurses or magistrates are far much better off compared to the food security worker and this is merely because the latter have been striking.
What government should know is it is simultaneously promoting some careers and killing others. Not all can be privileged enough to change professions like what I did after experiencing the domino effects of lack of motivation to frontline staff in the Ministry of Agriculture â€“ poor salaries, dilapidated or no houses, let alone house allowances; wide area to cover but using bicycles; no refresher courses but only briefed on new concepts during a one day EPA meeting while the one briefing you had attended a month-long training for the same; no protective gear and the etceteras.-The author is a former agriculture extension officer who likes to comment on topical issues. He is writing in his personal capacity.