Truck drivers have closed the country’s borders to incoming and outgoing cargo to force authorities resolve their grievances and an economist fears the situation could throw the country into economic crisis with shortages of essential commodities.
One economist The Nation spoke to yesterday warned that if not resolved fully and amicably, the truck drivers’ strike has the potential to shrink the economy already battered by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic which has reduced growth projections to a miserable 1.9 percent.
The bulk of landlocked Malawi’s imports and exports are ferried by road hauliers from sea ports in Mozambique, Tanzania and South Africa.
But from Monday this week, the truck drivers grounded the fleet and blocked any truck from operating until government addressed their grievances which include pay, lack of bonuses, risk allowances and processing of professional driving permits as well as cost of passports. The drivers want the government to engage their employers.
During a spot-check yesterday at Mwanza Border Post, the point of entry for goods from Durban Port in South Africa and Mozambique’s Beira Port, The Nation found scores of trucks blocking the entrance of the border. The trucks were also parked on both sides of the road between Mwanza Border Post and Zobue Border in Mozambique.
In the circumstances, no vehicle can pass through as the trucks have left no space.
Sources at Mwanza Border said no truck has passed through since Monday.
During the visit, some truck drivers were seen taking naps under the shed of their grounded vehicles while others did their laundry and left their clothes to dry on top of their vehicles.
Despite the visibly calm atmosphere at the border, there was heavy presence of armed police with two police vehicles on site.
The inactivity at Mwanza Border is felt when one approaches the district commissioners (DC) offices about 500 metres away where some trucks have been parked by the roadsides.
Some of the drivers we interviewed said most of the trucks, both local and foreign registered, are carrying fuel, fertiliser for the Affordable Inputs Programme (AIP), gas, polythene materials, new vehicles and groceries, among others.
Truck driver Jonathan Meya said they will not stop the strike until their grievances are fully addressed.
He said: “We have tried our best to have this issue sorted out, but our demands haven’t been met. So, the only way forward is that our demands must be met or else we will continue doing this.”
His sentiments were echoed by another driver James Simeon who said they want risk allowance because their job exposes them to dangers.
Reacting to the situation, Betchani Tchereni, dean of commerce and associate professor of economics at The Polytechnic—a constituent college of the University of Malawi, said government should stop procrastinating and resolve the issue at once.
He said: “When Covid-19 hit us, there was no international trade, only essential commodities could come into the country.
“So, we know the truckers are very important when it comes to facilitating trade, to move goods from Malawi to other parts of the world.”
Tchereni said Malawi being a predominantly consuming and importing economy, combined effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the truck drivers strike will be a big setback.
When asked what government is doing to resolve the standoff, Ministry of Transport and Public Works spokesperson Andrew Nthiko said they are consulting stakeholders and was hopeful the issue will be resolved within the soonest time possible.
“Considering that the drivers are still holding strikes in certain areas such as border posts, government is holding consultative meetings to come up with urgent and workable response on the matter,” he said.
Nthiko said the ministry has so far agreed with the Truck Drivers Association to, among other things, reduce the cost of obtaining a passport to K60 000, suspend the highway code computerised knowledge test and introduce mandatory coaching.
He also said the demands on salaries was referred to truck owners to propose how best they can adjust them.
Nthiko said government appreciates that its mandate is to create a conducive environment for business and ensure that labour laws are adhered to.
But in a telephone interview yesterday, Truck Drivers Association spokesperson Paul Kachitsa said they will not resume until their demands are fully met.
“This is something we have been pushing to materialise for quite a long time, but now we feel that we have done all we could have done. So, we will only resume work once the demands have been met,” he said.
Kachitsa said the strike will proceed in all of the country’s borders. The affected borders as of yesterday were Songwe in Karonga, Muloza in Mulanje, Dedza and Mwanza.
In Blantyre City motorists from Wednesday started experiencing the ripple effects of the strike largely evidenced by shortage of petrol at most service stations owned by Total Malawi and Puma Energy Limited.
Some motorists were seen queuing at Petroda Malawi Limited service stations, among others, to top up their tanks.
Efforts to speak to Petroleum Importers Limited (PIL) managing director Martin Msimuko on the status of fuel supply, proved futile as he could not be reached on his mobile phone on numerous attempts.
But in a earlier interview three weeks ago when the truck drivers grounded their vehicles again, Msimuko acknowledged that some of the consortium’s members were experiencing supply stockouts.
During a press conference in Lilongwe yesterday, Minister of Agriculture Lobin Lowe said only seven percent of the 4.2 million AIP beneficiaries had accessed their inputs.
In 2019, the drivers also paralysed the country’s economy when they grounded their vehicles to push for improved working conditions and protest award of haulage contracts to foreign trucks.