It never rains but pours for public universities in the country as Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) employees have threatened to go on an indefinite strike as they seek a salary increment of up to 40 percent.
The Luanar labour dispute follows another one at Chancellor College, constituent college of University of Malawi, which is yet to open over concerns about salary disparities within the university. In a memo titled ‘Notice to withdraw labour’, dated May 9 2017, the staff, through their unions have given management a seven-day notice to act on their demands before the strike is effected.
“As unions, we have resolved to pursue Section 46 (3) of the Labour Relations Act, where we are intending to strike and we hereby give notice in writing to the other party and the Principal Secretary responsible for Labour, the seven-day notice period, before taking such action,” reads the letter addressed to Luanar management, copied to the Ministry of Labour.
The workers are represented by their unions, namely Luanar Staff Union, Natural Resources College (NRC) Staff Union and the University Workers Trade Union. In an interview with Nation on Sunday, Luanar Staff Union president Francis Maguza-Tembo said hesitation on the part of management pushed them to resort to a strike.
“This is not a new issue. It has been there and, obviously, we have not been impressed by the progress said to be made. Come May 19, we will put down our tools,” he said.
Said Maguza-Tembo: “In fact, the 40 percent salary increment we are holding out is another option management can take in solving the crises, but what we are saying is that it must have been reflected in the 2016/17 fiscal year to get effected in July 2017.”
Documents in possession of Nation on Sunday indicate correspondence between the two sides, dating back to June 2016, when the issue of salary increment was first raised by the unions.
According to the unions, it just coincided with an apparent government directive barring parastatals to effect salary increments owing to economic crises, but they had to resume the fight after they learnt that the same government had allowed other government organs, such as Escom and water boards, to revise salaries by an average of 15 percent in the same salary increase-freeze period.
The unions also want their University Council to have the final say on salary increments, arguing that they are not government employees, and that waiting for government vetting on every decision is illegal.
But in a letter dated January 20 2017, the Ministry of Labour, Youth, Sports and Manpower Development clarified on the matter, insisting Luanar was still a government entity.
Signed by Wafwile Msukwa on behalf of the Secretary for Labour, the letter reads: “The information we have is that Luanar is fully owned by the Malawi Government. As such, in terms of Section 44 (2) of the Labour Relations Act, you are hereby advised to agree on a conciliator to assist you settle your dispute.”
And, as advised by the Ministry, last month the two parties took their matter to the Industrial Relations Court, where the court assigned an independent arbitrator, lawyer Allan Chinula, but a report dated May 5, indicate that the two sides could not be reconciled on the matter.
Reads the report in part: “The meeting was then informed that in view of the time limit within which conciliation talks must be concluded as stipulated in the Section 44 (4) above, we cannot extend the talks any further to await the meeting between the chairperson of the council and the Secretary to the Treasury.
“The conciliation, therefore, failed to solve the labour dispute between the parties. The parties are accordingly advised to proceed as provided for in Sections 45 and 46 of the Labour Relations Act.” Minister of Labour, Youth, Sports and Man power Development Henry Mussa asked for more time to consult on the matter, saying he was ignorant about it.
On his part, Acting ViceChancellor Professor Emmanuel Kaunda admitted knowledge of the issues and added that management is equally concerned about the development.
“Actually, I should commend the staff unions for their patience; these issues began in June last year, and I guess it is only that cohesion, that family feeling that we share at Luanar, that has all along prevented the situation to get out of hand,” said Kaunda.
He added that management was taking the issue seriously, and that it had already scheduled to meet the unions for further talks at the weekend. But he said on their part they were working towards a smooth and peaceful solution to the issue.
Should the strike take effect, Luanar will join Chancellor College, which is yet to open over the same issue. However, Luanar’s case will be complicated as school is in session.