The Government and its employees met in Harare yesterday under the auspices of the National Joint Negotiating Council (NJNC) to discuss salaries and working conditions for the latter.
They met after weeks of lobbying by civil servants for a salary adjustment citing the erosion of their packages since October last year when the bond weakened by around 300 percent against major currencies, causing prices of all goods and services to rise by the same margin.
The meeting also came on the day when junior doctors officially called off their 40-day strike for higher salaries and better working conditions. Indeed, there has been substantial labour unsettlement in recent weeks, triggered by the October price rally. Although the market has stabilised somewhat, prices remain on the high end yet salaries are stagnant at pre-October levels, hence the civil servants’ cry for relief.
Through its negotiators, the Government offered a 10 percent salary adjustment at yesterday’s meeting. To take effect in April, the salary increment will grow the Government’s salary bill by $160 million between April and December. The workers came to the meeting demanding a $1 733 salary for the lowest paid employee, up from $414 inclusive of allowances. This represents an increase of 419 percent versus the 10 percent that the employer put on the table. It is clear that the gulf between the two parties in terms of expectations and what has been offered is huge thus workers refused to take the Government’s figure. The two sides will consult their constituencies and are likely to meet again next week.
“The purpose of the meeting was to get response from Government on a position that we presented to the NJNC in November last year, which was amounting to $1 733 for the least paid worker,” said Apex Council chairwoman Mrs Cecelia Alexander.
“It is quite disturbing that Government brought a 10 percent offer, which translates to only $41 for the least paid civil servant. As Apex Council negotiators we have rejected this offer in totality and now we are going back to give feedback to our constituencies who will advise us on the way forward.”
The spirit of dialogue that we are witnessing is encouraging. Nothing beats dialogue, they say. We note the differences between the two sides and that it could take much negotiation for them to meet somewhere in between. Both sides are encouraged to maintain that spirit of dialogue, not the acrimony that characterised the junior doctors’ strike that led to the Government accusing them of negotiating in bad faith and pursuing a political agenda under the guise of wage negotiations.
It is very important for a balance to be achieved, addressing the urgent and genuine welfare challenges facing civil servants on one hand while ensuring that the Government continues to live within its means as it has attempted to do with commendable success since September last year. Workers should be compensated fairly for the labour they render for Government business to run smoothly. They deserve a living wage, a decent home, a personal vehicle and so on.
On the other hand, the employer should have enough resources to make the foregoing happen, not to commit itself to paying attractive salaries and perks that would result in it overshooting its budget in which case the overall bad economic conditions in the country could worsen.
High public expenditure has, over the years, created a budget deficit, cited as one of the reasons why the economy is not in good health. However, the Government is beginning to do well in its efforts to bring its spending down. In September, the monthly fiscal budget deficit was reduced to $19 million against a target of $99 million, Finance and Economic Development Minister, Professor Mthuli Ncube said at the time. In November, the Government actually achieved a budget surplus of $29 million, which means that it spent $29 million less than the total income generated. If the Government was a company this would have meant that it made a profit of $29 million after years of losses. These are modest figures, we agree, but they represent a new culture of the Government spending more responsibly.
Taken together with other reform measures, the cost containment drive should take the economy forward.
While negotiations are still continuing, we expect civil servants to seek a fair deal for themselves but without forgetting that they must help their employer to curtail high spending. We are optimistic that the economy will grow substantially this year and Government revenues will improve, giving it capacity to spend more, including on paying its workers higher salaries. This will not be realised in one month but over an extended period of time which is why President Mnangagwa always says tough decisions will have to be made to get the economy back on the rails. Also, he often appeals for the people to be patient as the economic recovery unfolds.