Shop workers at Bwalo la Njobvu in Lilongwe Old Town on Monday started a sit-in that saw a shutdown of the entire business centre, one of the busiest in Malawi.
They are pushing for better pay and conditions of service from their employers.
The workers, under the Shop and Domestic Workers Union, included those working in shops owned by Malawians of Asian origin communities, Chinese, Nigerian, Tanzanian and Burundi nationals.
The employees, who carried on their protest peacefully, assembled near the Muslim Sports Club within the area as early as 6am and went around to ensure that no shop is open while at the same time forcing the adamant owners to close their shops.
By 9am, almost all the shops were shut down and they remained so until close of business on Monday as the angry employees tried to work their way to have their employers come to a negotiating table.
It was only around 2pm that the two sides met face-to-face with Lilongwe district commissioner Felix Munthali, police officer-in-charge Richard Luhanga, People’s Party deputy director of youth and Dowa East MP Bauleni Mannah and officials from the Labour Office.
The bone of contention during the discussion was the absence of four of the five communities during the discussion, a situation that forced the meeting to be postponed to Tuesday morning after Luhanga promised to trace the other groups of employers to also come for the meeting.
The only group which was present was that of Malawians of Asian origin.
Vice-chairperson of the union, Charles Saidi, told the meeting that it would not be possible to proceed with other key stakeholders absent.
In an interview, Saidi explained that the strike followed attempts by the workers to meet their employers starting from April 4 2013 as a follow-up to an agreement of 2004 which most of the shops operating in the area have not implemented.
The agreement, among several issues, stipulated that the conditions of service should include housing allowance, overtime pay; leave entitlement which would include annual leave, sick leave, maternity leave and compassionate leave, and also that workers should work within regulated time and days.
The agreement also talked about bereavement assistance which included a coffin provision, cash in kind and reasonable transport, loans, occupational health and safety, and that all employees should have a contract with their employers.
“Some have partially implemented some of the issues raised while others have completely ignored the agreement. Just imagine there are other employees who are getting K8 242 (about $20) per month, but they work almost seven days a week, including Saturdays and Sundays,” said Saidi.
At the moment, the minimum pay for the shop workers is pegged at between K5 000 ($11) and K6 000 (about $14) per month without housing allowance.
The 2004 agreement was signed by Haroon Akbanie who was the then chairperson of the employers representative and Pruf Lankhani, a committee member, while the employees were represented by Joseph Kankhwangwa as general secretary of Commercial, Industrial and Allied Workers Union (CIAWU).
After the meeting, Mannah addressed the workers and assured them that government would do all it can to bring the two sides to an agreement over what he called were genuine concerns from the workers.