March 31 2013 was meant to end a long wait for better pay, but April 1 turned out to be the fools day that it was for Hamilton Viyaje and his colleagues—they did not get their pay.
Being a civil servant, the head teacher of Goliati Primary School in Thyolo smiled all the way to the bank, but he had to wait until April 10 to get his salary for the previous month.
“Delayed payments cause frustrating hardships for every worker. Life came to a standstill, but I had to borrow money from a friend to provide for my family,” explains Viyaje, who serves over 1 000 pupils.
Looking at the skyrocketing cost of living since government devalued the national currency in May last year, the father of six—including a student whose school fees is K65 000 (about $164) per term—wonders: Do you see anything to smile about it?
“This is survival of the fittest. We are just working to stay alive, not to improve our livelihood. Personal development is nearly impossible as necessities that used to cost K20 000 (about $47) in 2009 now cost about K100 000 (about $238)?” he says.
Viyaje was among 11 000 teachers that had to endure a suspenseful wait for their dues last month. According to Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM), the group constitute nearly one sixth of about 66 000 teachers in the country.
In a customary response to the frustrating trend, Ministry of Education spokesperson Lindiwe Chide attributed the untimely payout to “a computerised system that was taking too long to compile data.”
Last year, Chide also blamed a “system error” when civil servants, including 97 percent of the teaching profession, got their January salaries at the end of February.
However, “the delays” and “system errors” compound workers’ plight at a time trade unionists say the devaluation policy and automatic pricing system of fuel have brought them untold hardships.
“How can a lowly paid teacher work when their salary is delayed? If this continues, those affected will abandon work and look for alternatives,” said TUM secretary general Denis Kalekeni in reaction to the recent setback.
Viyaje feels another strike may be around the corner, vindicating Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU) verdict on the free market economic policies.
“We know it was done out of pressure from donors, but government should have known the effects. The devaluation has brought misery to workers,” MCTU president Luther Mambala said before handing over the seat to Eliah Kamphinda Banda last year.
The writing on the wall has been clear like a neon sign on a dark street. Kamphinda warned in March last year that “government was sitting on a time bomb” by ignoring their call for salaries to be increased” to cope with rising cost of living.
Quest for better pay
Various workforces have been petitioning for better pay—with civil servants demanding a 67 percent increase across the board.
Two weeks of nationwide strikes and localised pupils’ riots in February compelled government to accord least-paid civil servants a 61 percent salary increment and the highest earners a five percent rise. Still, the public employees feel it is a raw deal as the cost of living keeps rising.
But the calls for pay rises present another dilemma Employers Consultative Association of Malawi (Ecam) and MCTU underscored when workers were demanding a 40 percent hike in November to cushion the results of devaluation.
“I cannot say how much percentage each company will effect, but employers look at inflation rate before coming up with a figure. Right now even companies are suffering and have had to look for alternative measures of survival,” said Ecam deputy executive director Beyani Munthali.
Remuneration issues can be this tricky and most firms have increased salaries by 25-35 percent, warning that retrenchment look imminent as operational costs rise.
As reports of job losses are emerging, even workers need to strive for a compromise.
“We only work because jobs are scarce. After all, we need to survive,” says a Chirimba-based resident who walks over 10km daily to get to her workplace.
A majority of pedestrians interviewed between Chileka Roundabout and Blantyre Central Business District said they could not afford a minibus because fares have risen as their salaries remain low.
Minimum living wage
Some of them said the fruits of increments were scarcely noticeable as prices of goods keep rising every day.
According to the National Statistical Office, inflation has risen from 10.3 percent in February last year to 37.9 percent the same month this year. As such, those that have had no increment can only afford almost three times less than they could buy 14 months ago.
Currently, monthly basic needs’ basket compiled by Centre for Social Concern (CFSC) shows that a family of six needs up to K104 708 (about $249) a month in Blantyre, K106 000 (about $252) in Lilongwe, K86 235 (about $205) in Zomba and K88 952 (about $211) in Mzuzu.
Reports from Minister of Labour Eunice Makangala’s workplace tours are a confirmation that some workers are receiving as low as K3 000 (about $7) at a time the minimum wage remains at K8 242 (about $20).
“Do not accept anything less,” Makangala told job-seekers at Blantyre Labour Office in October last year.
The same month, the minister also announced that government was planning to review the minimum wage following the 49 percent devaluation of the kwacha. Surprisingly, the promise remains just that.
However, the workers’ representatives and trade unions were sidelined in the making of the national Economic Recovery Plan.
The promises and lies leave the likes of Viyaje resembling the portrait of a teacher TUM president Chatuluka Muwake once painted.
“Salaries remain inadequate to meet basic needs. Teachers do not enjoy any allowances as their colleagues in the civil service. As a result, they are subjected to katapila [ very high interest borrowing from loan sharks],” decried Muwake in October last year.
To the teacher at Goliati, the Labour Day celebrated last week must become a day of action and counting blessings.
“It’s sad that the day comes and goes, but nothing happens. We have been singing the same song over and over again,” says Viyaje.
Disbursing salaries on time might put a smile on his face—at least as he awaits another increment.