By Nelson Banya
HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwean state teachers and health workers threatened on Wednesday to strike over low pay, in a move that would paralyse public services and put pressure on a unity government struggling to reverse a decade of economic collapse.
A power-sharing administration set up last year by President Robert Mugabe and his bitter rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in a bid to end a protracted economic and political crisis says it needs at least $10 billion to fix the economy.
The three major unions representing government workers, who earn an average of $160 a month, told reporters at a joint news conference in Harare that they would strike if their demand for a minimum wage of $630 was not met within two weeks.
The unions said they rejected the government’s offer of $236 a month for the highest paid public servant.
“The civil servants in Zimbabwe … register their displeasure and utter dismay at the paltry offer the government has put forward,” the unions said in a statement.
“Civil servants therefore demand an urgent redress of this situation before it’s too late…we are giving the leadership of the country 14 days to decisively intervene on this issue as a matter of urgency.”
Finance Minister Tendai Biti has said the government wage bill takes up 60 percent of total revenue and that limited resources available made it difficult for the state to award significant wage increases.
But government workers said they had no choice.
“Our members are suffering, we cannot pay our bills, the tariffs are higher than our wages,” said Cecilia Alexander, president of the Public Service Association (PSA), an umbrella body for all civil servants.
A strike by teachers and health professionals, who make up the bulk of the civil service, would severely affect efforts to revive core sectors which collapsed at the height of Zimbabwe’s crisis in 2008 when services at public schools and hospitals ground to a halt.
State media reported on Wednesday that although schools had opened on schedule for the new term, state-employed teachers were not giving lessons in protest against the slow pace of wage negotiations with the government.
Zimbabwe’s unity government has managed to stabilise the economy, mainly by dumping a local currency rendered worthless by hyperinflation which peaked at 500 billion percent in December 2008 and adopting the use of multiple currencies.
The country’s economy grew for the first time in a decade last year — by a better than expected 4.7 percent — and tamed hyperinflation, but analysts say the economy will only take off on the back foreign investment and Western aid.
Investors and Western donors are, however, holding out for signs that the unity government will last and watching if Mugabe is ready to genuinely share power with Tsvangirai and institute broad reforms.
The fragile coalition has been rocked by frequent wrangles over the pace of reforms, senior government appointments such as that of central bank governor and attorney-general, as well as sanctions imposed on Mugabe and his inner circle.