Zim civil service wage concessions: The missed opportunities

Jul 2, 2011

The government has conceded to the demands of civil servants for a living wage at a difficult time. What are some of the implications for Zimbabwe?

One report says the lowest government wage is to go from US$128 to $159 a month. The housing allowance has gone from $30 to $50, and transport allowance from $28 to $44. The new total minimum monthly government pay package is therefore now $253, still very low compared to the cost of living in Zimbabwe..

'Poverty Datum Line' is one of those infuriatingly jargony phrases much loved in Zimbabwe. It is the minimum average monthly amount needed for a family of five to buy its basic needs. That figure is $502, according to the government's Central Statistical Office. The average salaried person (and many non-salaried self-employed) in Zimbabwe easily somehow wholly or partially supports five people or more.

Seen in this context,. the new civil service minimum is nothing to write home about. One teachers' union is demanding an increment from $200 to $500 a month, plus allowances for items like transport and housing.

However all this is settled in the coming days and weeks, the wage concession is significant in several ways beyond the obvious ones.

As with just about everything in Zimbabwe, there is a political, partisan dimension, with the on-going fight between uneasy ruling coalition partners ZANU-PF and the main MDC party at the center. Tendai Biti the MDC minister of finance says there just isn't money available for a salary increase. Revenues have to be increased first and he says there are many more people on government payroll than actually work, a problem he insists must be addressed before talk of a payraise. He pointedly says his ministry is yet to receive the proceeds of a number of diamond auctions conducted under the mines ministry, headed by a ZANU-PF minister.

Robert Mugabe the president from ZANU-PF had earlier in the year effectively promised government workers a pay raise from diamond revenue, but without addressing the finance minister's questions about how transparently the diamond auctions are done, how the money is accounted for...and where it is!

So a basic question that sounds almost silly to ask is: how is the offered pay raise going to be effected if the keeper of the national purse, the finance minister, says the money just isn't there? Is he lying? Does the president know something about the state of national finances that the finance minister doesn't? It would seem to be a very dangerous situation to promise a pay raise in an environment where such basic issues are unresolved.

Who promised the new wages? Another silly-sounding question, but one whose answer could be important. Strangely, the announcement was attributed to officials of a grouping of civil service unions that have been negotiating with government. Should it not have come from the wage payer, the government, specifically the finance ministry? What does it mean that it didn't? Is it possible here that there is an 'agreement' which the minister of finance is not part of? If so, how would it work? If so, on what basis can he continue to hold his position?

At the very least, Biti has been put in a very awkward position. If the pay raise is instituted and can actually be paid, it will make him look he just didn't want to pay civil servants more before. He has already been portrayed by his ZANU-PF detractors as being an anti-peoples' welfare scrooge who is more concerned about paying external debt than improving salaries. He was damned when he said a raise couldn't be paid, but he will be just as damned with the pay raise, as ZANU-PF says, "he didn't want to pay the raise but we forced his hand, you see now that the money was there all along."

With the announcement of an increase having been already made, though in an odd, seemingly un-procedural way, if it is not paid there will be labour unrest and heavy political costs for the government in general, and for Biti in particular.

The government is not in a strong negotiating position. There has been so much talk and hype about diamonds from the new Marange fields that expectations have been raised high, worsened by the suspicion of many citizens that the politicians are involved in looting this new resource for their own benefit.

Parliament recently controversially authorised a $98 million loan from China, to be repaid by diamond revenue, for the building in Harare of an army officers' training center. It gave a very bad picture of the government's priorities to Zimbabweans, strengthening the feeling that the common well-being at a difficult time is not the topmost concern of those in power.

Then there was the $10 million to import 140 luxury cars for government ministers and other fatcats.

The president and a large entourage go on expensive monthly foreign trips that symbolically suggest distance from the struggles of people at home.

These developments only fuel suspicions that there is indeed money available, but that it is not being used to alleviate the very difficult economic situation of most people. Any window of moral authority the government had to plead for patience to sort out its internal fights over the diamond revenue situation has been lost by its examples of profligacy.

If the promised increases are going to be hard to pay, the government has not just a short-term problem because apparently the new wage agreement includes a provision for a pay review as soon as December!

The civil servants cannot be begrudged their modest pay raise, but all these factors surrounding how it has come about and how it is being messily implemented suggest that it is going to cause huge headaches for the government and the country.


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