Honourable Folks, do the incessant labour disputes in the public sector signify a rejection of reforms?
For two weeks, civil servants were on strike, demanding astronomical pay hikes and improved work conditions to cushion against the rising cost of living.
Ever since JB introduced wholesale reforms 10 months ago, devaluing the kwacha by 49 percent and floating it against major currencies, prices have gone up, poverty has increased and government’s ability to provide public goods and services has greatly dwindled.
The strike by government employees assumed dangerous proportions when primary school pupils, abandoned by their disgruntled teachers, went on rampage in Blantyre and Lilongwe, pelting motorists with stones and looting shops.
The JB administration reacted virtually impulsively by offering to increase salaries in the civil service by five to 61 percent without thinking much about where exactly the money would come from.
Finance Minister Dr. Ken Lipenga had just articulated the country’s fiscal woes—government to overspend by K68 billion on account of rising costs of drugs, school materials, farm input subsidies, etc. We were already in deep trouble before the bloated wage bill came to aggravate the situation.
But if at all anyone out there thinks the situation worries politicians, then they just might have to think again. Each of the 193 folks we elected to represent us in Parliament reportedly wants a K10 million pay cheque in fuel allowance arrears. Henceforth, they also expect the overstretched taxpayer to pay each one of them an equivalent of 500 litres every month.
If you asked me, there’s no division between the government and opposition sides on this matter. If there’s one area in which MPs speak with one voice, it’s when they demand an increase in salary or perks.
The same spirit prevailed when their predecessors demanded constituency allowance so they could buy freebies with which to corrupt the electorate.
They were also united when they chose to buy 4×4 twin cabs on loan only to turn around later and demand a pay hike, arguing that their salaries were too small to meet the monthly deductions.
For some strange reason, our MPs behave as if it were not Malawians they represent. The other day, during the Muluzi era, they demanded “Sadc salaries” so they could compare favourably with the best paid MPs in the region without caring a coin about the measly wages prevailing on the Malawi labour market.
The same indifference prevails now.
But faulting MPs alone is missing the point. The Executive is not leading by example either. What moral justification do they have to dismiss the demand by MPs as unreasonable when each senior minister is reportedly getting the cash equivalent to 1 000 litres per month while each deputy minister is receiving 750 litres per month.
The ministers are all based in Lilongwe and their offices are in Capital Hill. Which vehicle would require 1 000 litres a month to take them to and from their offices? Or, are they operating minibuses at our expense?
Even the President hasn’t come out clean. The other day she announced that she would sacrifice part of her salary and that of her deputy to symbolise their solidarity with us, their people, as we languish under the yoke of austerity.
Yet, now we know that for each of the presidential trip made locally, she gets an allowance close to half a million kwacha a day. We also know that for any trip abroad, the President gets more per day in allowance than her official monthly salary. There could also be other hidden sources of revenue!
Where, then, will government raise the money for its bloated budget? Industry is overtaxed, crowded out and producing for a dwindling local market where the unstable kwacha is the only legal tender and yet they pay their suppliers abroad in foreign currency which keeps on rising against the kwacha, thanks to floatation.
If they tax industry further, the much-touted Economic Recovery Plan (ERP) may be affected.
Will they tax the impoverished citizens more in the year of election? That may tickle donors, but there just might be a price to pay come May 2014.
Because of greed, the Executive implemented reforms except in their own comfort zone. Now everyone knows there’s no money yet the thinking is: if those in the Executive are basking in extravagance, why not me? Effective change agents walk the talk.