The Professional Drivers Association of Malawi should not be naïve enough to believe that by endorsing their stay-away show, the Transporters Association of Malawi (TAM) suddenly has their welfare at heart and are now friends with them.
The truth is that the association is being opportunistic, riding on the back of the drivers they have tortured for decades with miserable wages to push for higher transport prices and expand their businesses even as they refuse to comply with the government-imposed minimum wage.
The Ministry of Labour gazetted, effective January 2021, that the minimum wage for international track drivers is K140 000.
Government’s move followed crippling industrial actions by the drivers last year, including the closure of Mwanza Border, to push for better salaries.
More than eight months after the gazetting of the new wages, most transporters—the bulk of whom are members of TAM—have not complied with the new minimum wage, preferring to continue exploiting their most important asset for their tracking business—drivers.
Their claim is that transportation rates and local transporters’ share of international business—at 20 percent—is too low for the haulage companies to afford the new minimum wage.
The companies have even managed to convince the gullible drivers that government is to blame for their gross underpayments!
What is more, the transporting firms appear to have even aided and abated the strikes that for the past 72 hours have crippled the country’s transport sector and brought uncertainty of fuel supply even when the country has enough fuel to last more than one month with or without new fuel imports.
Yet, TAM was one of the major stakeholders that the Ministry consulted in coming up with the new minimum wage—meaning that they were part of the process of arriving at what should be fair pay for fair work.
I think that the Deputy Minister of Labour Vera Kamtukule should invoke the Employment Act of 2000 and work with the Malawi Police Service to arrest all owners of tracking companies that do not comply with the new minimum wage requirements. The government lawyers, once these company directors are in court, should push for the maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment for contemptuously disregarding a legally binding decision that the government made.
The material effect of the firms’ disregard of the requirement is that the economy is being held to ransom by characters in the haulage business, especially those specializing in transportation of fuel.
I mean, why should Malawian motorists queue for hours or drive around town looking for fuel in panic buying mode when there is plenty of the product in depots and storage facilities nationwide simply because road transport companies have decided to be greedy?
On the day of writing this column, thousands for productive people were late for work, learners missed classes and small-scale businesses could not fulfill orders whose proceeds would have fed their starving families.
What is more annoying is that government has gone an extra mile to accommodate the drivers. Capitol Hill has waved requirements for Covid-19 certificates for international drivers, cut the costs of their passports and eased their ability to get documents at the Road Traffic Directorate.
Not everyone in this country is as lucky as the drivers and it does not mean that those in other sectors do less important jobs or that their contribution to the economy is inconsequential.
You would expect the Professional Drivers Association to work with government to force their employers to pay them what they deserve or at least what the law stipulates.
Instead, the naïve drivers have allowed themselves to be manipulated by the transport companies into believing that government is the enemy when in fact it is their employers who are messing them up.
One major outcome of this drivers’ madness is, hopefully, the lesson that government must learn: this country has become too dependent on road transport for too long and it must be reversed for both domestic and international trade handling.
These vultures in the road transport sub-sector cannot continue to account for more than 70 percent of the internal freight and over 90 percent of the country’s international freight traffic. Government must reduce the road transporters power by turning rail into the main mode for international freight transport, connecting Malawi with its southern neighbors of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
That will cut out these greedy folks significantly.