As the Joyce Banda administration ponders its response to the January 17 consumers’ petition, the Civil Servants Trade Union (CSTU) says it will stage on a two-day stay-away on February 11 and 12 over poor working conditions and lack of communication on staff grievances from Capital Hill.
In an exclusive interview with The Nation this week, CSTU president Eliah Kamphinda-Banda argued poor conditions of service will pile pressure on a President already battling the backlash of free-market policies and a tough austerity budget that have dramatically increased the cost of living and pushed more people into poverty, hence the January 17 demonstration.
Kamphinda-Banda on Wednesday argued that public servants are tired of being given a raw deal as government has failed to show commitment to improving their welfare.
Since the time of the late president Bingu wa Mutharika, CSTU and other public service unions have been engaging government in discussions to have their welfare looked into, especially on conditions of service and wages.
In response, according to Kamphinda-Banda, Capital Hill formed the Government Negotiating Team (GNT) to engage the unions, but the two parties have not reached any compromise as the authorities refuse to grant civil servants the 67 percent pay hike they earlier demanded.
Instead, the Banda administration implemented an average 21 percent increase in the 2012/13 national budget which was said to be a cushion against the hardships, according to CSTU.
Kamphinda-Banda said the expectation was that government would continue to review the civil servants’ salaries.
Last year’s hike in the subsistence allowances for Cabinet members by almost 80 percent made things worse as CSTU demanded the same increment for the whole civil service.
Kamphinda-Banda on Tuesday claimed efforts to have dialogue with government through the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) are not bearing fruits as there is no feedback on their grievances; hence, the proposed two-day stay-away.
Said Kamphinda-Banda: “As a union, we [have] tried very hard to communicate with government and the President herself. You recall, we wrote her in October last year to, among other things, seriously consider reviewing our salaries and give back to government the responsibility of giving loans to its employees and not the banks.
“It’s sad that even the President herself is quiet. She has not responded to date.”
The CSTU boss claimed OPC did not even inform the union about changes in leadership of GNT after the appointment of Willie Samute as OPC Deputy Chief Secretary.
It is also clear, according to the CSTU leader, that some senior civil servants have become more of the President’s personal assistants than advisers by failing to advise the Head of State on the civil servants’ plight.
Said Kamphinda-Banda: “The civil servants’ morale is now too low and we advise all civil servants not to report for work on 11th and 12th February.
“Reasons are that our salaries are too low, conditions of service are pathetic, all drivers must be given their vehicles, PP [People’s Party] should not be giving loans to civil servants. If they have money for loans, let it be administered by Treasury.”
He said some drivers in government have been forced to go on holiday because a 2012 last quarter circular limits pool vehicles to three for every ministry.
“We have information that some drivers are being forced to go on holiday. Drivers just like any other civil servant must feel secure in their jobs. In fact, we should have been consulted first. This is what we are calling management by circular letters. The drivers must be recalled and let us see ways we can control vehicle movements” said the union leader.
He also questioned government’s seriousness to adhere to set control measures that demand that a pool vehicle be allocated 100 litres per month when principal secretaries (PSs) get 500 litres per month while ministers access almost triple the PS allocation volume.
On this score, Kamphinda-Banda claimed the CSTU leadership is only carrying out instructions from civil servants who are owners of the union and that if government will not move in to avert the stay-away, a fully fledged strike will follow.
“Communication is ongoing because they are members themselves doing the groundwork. So, if government chooses to be quiet, it will be surprised to see that offices are closed come 11th and 12th February. Thereafter, we are going to go slow up to the 15th and thereafter it is going to be total blackout,” he said.
Kamphinda-Banda said while civil servants are looking forward to meeting the government team, it is important for the public service to realise that there are more tough times coming ahead.
“We have a government system which is working through circulars. We have information that OPC has no strategic plan. We no longer hear about principal secretaries’ meetings. We doubt if management teams are working in the ministries now,” he claimed.
“We know that the ERP [the newly launched Economic Recovery Plan] is a brainchild of ministers and it seems that is why its implementation is becoming a problem. It was supposed to be the PSs’ advising the ministers,” observed Kamphinda-Banda.
But support for the CSTU-lead strike is divided among other major public sector unions.
For example, while the National Organisation of Nurses and Midwives (Nonm) have gone a step further than CSTU by pushing for an outright strike on February 11 and 12, the Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM) says they have not taken a position yet.
Nonm president Jonathan Abraham-Gama on Wednesday said the nurses and midwives support the idea of staying away from work, arguing government has not showed interest to dialogue on their welfare.
He also said in the absence of incentives to ease the hardship created by the devaluation and high inflation rate, it has become clear that government has no concern about the welfare of civil servants, including nurses and midwives.
Said Abraham-Gama: “Nonm is supporting the stand of CSTU because this government looks not to be interested in negotiations. The last negotiations between government and union took place last year around May, 2012.”
“In the absence of any forum between government and unions, it is justifiable for unions to seek any means of speaking to the government, including a sit-in, hence our support,” he said, noting that the ball is in government’s court to resume the negotiations before the set dates.
Abraham-Gama said it is only fair that the salaries of nurses and midwives as well as all civil servants be increased to meet the high cost of living prevailing in the country.
“The government should embrace an automatic salary increment mechanism which says that any devaluation and inflation rate percentages the country is undergoing, automatically salaries should increase in tandem with those increases in devaluation and inflation rates,” he said.
But TUM president Chauluka Muwake on Tuesday said their union has not taken a position yet on the proposed stay-way.
Said Muwake: “The position of TUM is not yet clear because as TUM, we believe in contact and dialogue. I am sure CSTU has an issue which we may share, but before setting the dates, we need to do some homework so that we can approach government with a unified force.
“First, we need to push for a meeting with government [and] when we fail there, then declare a dispute with government.”
He, however, admitted that government is not doing enough in addressing teachers’ concerns, although he said the many challenges facing the current administration are understandable.
President Banda announced on January 7, 2013 at Ludzi Secondary School in Mchinji that her government will ensure that at least 4 000 teachers are promoted and several teachers’ houses built. She also said salaries for the teachers have to be given in time to avoid inconveniencing them.
But Muwake said: “What we want government to do is to improve the conditions in teaching to make it attractive so that even those with high qualification can say ‘I can join teaching’. This time, many who join teaching are sometimes rejects of their ambitions.
“Attractive salary, timely promotions, clearing of arrears for teachers and systematic upkeep of teachers records, are some of the outstanding teachers’ problems.”
There was no immediate direct comment from OPC on issues raised by the unions.
But Dr Macphail Magwira, Secretary for Education (PS1), whom The Nation was directed to by OPC, pleaded with the unions to exercise patience and give his newly constituted negotiating committee a chance before mobilising their members to stage a strike.
Magwira, who declined to comment on the previous team’s efforts to reach a compromise with the civil servants on their welfare, said there would be a meeting this Friday or Saturday to discuss the same.
“There is a new committee appointed last month and I have just received minutes and the composition of the committee. There is no need for them to proceed with the stay-away. We are ready to meet them and discuss,” he said.
When told that the negotiations started sometime back and the unions are complaining of the slow pace and lack of commitment, Magwira said: “I cannot say much because I am relatively new [as chairman]. Give me a chance.”
Inside sources at OPC also said the PSs meetings are still taking place, contrary to the unions observations, only that they are not graced by official openings and closings as was the case before.