Anti-riot police block public sector workers from marching to government offices with a petition demanding better pay in Harare, Zimbabwe on November 6 2019. REUTERS/ PHILIMON BULAWAYO
Anti-riot police block public sector workers from marching to government offices with a petition demanding better pay in Harare, Zimbabwe on November 6 2019. REUTERS/ PHILIMON BULAWAYO

Armed police on Wednesday blocked a march by disgruntled public servants protesting paltry salaries of US$50 (R741) a month in a country with a triple-digit inflation rate.

The government workers are demanding a minimum wage of US$475 (R7,039) and are demanding they be paid in US dollars instead of the local dollars.

Zimbabwe’s government has been haggling with its workers over salaries for much of the year, as wages constantly get eroded by a more than 300% inflation rate and the country’s worst economic crisis in a decade.

On Tuesday, the government fired 77 doctors who have been on strike for more than two months demanding a higher wage. Teachers, nurses and doctors have resorted to working for only two days a week to avoid high transport costs.

The Southern African country last week announced it will introduce a new currency into the economy this week in an effort to ease cash shortages in the economy.

Zimbabwe faces a myriad problems that include shortages of foreign currency, fuel, electricity and medical drugs. Unemployment levels have shot up to more than 90% as the economy has continued to shrink. The crisis has been worsened by a debilitating drought that is threatening massive starvation and a collapse of the country’s agro-based economy.

The bulk of Zimbabwe’s 300,000 government workers say they cannot even afford to go to work as they earn a paltry ZW$1,200 (R741), making them among the least-paid public workforce in the world. Led by their union leaders, the workers gathered in central Harare to march but were dispersed by a large number of anti-riot policemen armed with guns, tear gas and baton sticks.

In a petition addressed to the minister of labour, Sekai Nzenza, the Apex Council, the umbrella workers’ union, said negotiations with the government had hit a brick wall after the Emmerson Mnangagwa-led administration failed to offer a salary increment.

“We want value to be restored to our salaries. We are demanding a minimum salary for the lowest-paid civil servant to be $475 (R7,039),” Cecilia Alexander, Apex council chair told reporters. She warned of “serious unrest that will impact on productivity and service delivery” if the government does not address the workers’ plight.

“Only monkeys can survive on peanuts,” one placard read, while another said: “Give us salaries in USD” and yet another said; “You have subjected us to real slavery and poverty.”

The heavily armed officers, however, barred the group from reaching the minister’s office to hand over its petition, reminding the protesters of the heavy-handedness of former president Robert Mugabe.

Raymond Majongwe, leader of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, said the move by the police to block the march was unconstitutional.

“President Mnangagwa must be told that what is happening is completely unnecessary. We don’t want to deliver a grenade or bomb, just a petition,” Majongwe said.

He said workers were also disappointed that their annual bonus, which government had promised to pay in November, had been staggered to December.