guest column:Tendai Ruben Mbofana
This has been one of the most deluded period for the Zimbabwe government – even by its own inherently schizophrenic standards — firstly claiming that providing low salaries to workers was economically prudent as it attracted foreign direct investment (FDI), since companies preferred investing in countries with cheap labour, then later announcing that it intended inviting back foreign-based specialist doctors — yet, clearly failing to adequately care for its own local contingent of medical practitioners.
Wow! Could this get any worse? I am pretty sure we have not heard the last of these laughable pronouncements – which, however, fall far short of being comical, as ordinary Zimbabweans have for decades borne the brunt of such brazenly atrocious policies by the government.
Quite frankly, what would inspire a whole Minister of Health to be so excitable — while touring and inspecting a private health institution — to seemingly forget that his government has dismally failed to attend to the demands and needs of its own health care workers with any gravity of seriousness? As every Zimbabwean knows by now — most likely through traumatic experiences of not receiving any medical attention at public health institutions, or witnessing loved ones dying for lack of care — doctors have been incapacitated from attending to their duties, due to the inadequacy of their remunerations from government. As much as they have tried to plead their case with relevant authorities, this has, nonetheless, been greeted with the usual cruel hard-heartedness and unforgivable arrogance – whereby, instead of the government negotiating in good faith, they have resorted to threats and firing of the clearly shortchanged and aggrieved doctors.
Who is to blame here? Who has wronged who?
For a clearer understanding of the doctors — and by extension, all other civil servants, including teachers, nurses, among others, as well pensioners – let us rewind the clock to exactly a year ago, when every employee’s salary was pegged in United States dollars, as that had effectively been the currency of choice since the introduction of the multi-currency system in 2009.
Notwithstanding that people were now receiving their monies from banks in bond notes, purely as a consequence of US dollar cash shortages — as the exchange rate was at par at 1:1 — employee contracts, however, never changed, and their salaries were still legally in the greenback. Nonetheless, fast forward to 2019, enter a new phase of the government’s crazed economic policies, with the February 20 introduction of the RTGS dollar as the new local currency, and the liberisation of the interbank exchange rate — which was characterised by a steady decline of the Zimbabwe currency against the US dollar.
This was the genesis of the ”stealing” of employee salaries, as they continued to receive their monies in local currency at a rate of 1:1 against their contractually binding US dollar remuneration – despite the fact that the RTGS dollar was swiftly losing value, and as such, their payments needed to be adjusted accordingly.
Furthermore, on June 24 — through Statutory Instrument 142 of 2019 — the administration outlawed the multi-currency system, and also introduced yet another local currency in the form of the Zimbabwe dollar.
Workers continued to receive their salaries in the new local currency — with brazen disregard of prevailing interbank exchange rates, which would have maintained these at their US dollar equivalent, in line with their contracts of employment. Thus, when workers and pensioners demanded their right for salaries to be pegged at prevailing interbank exchange rates, the government treated this as some insane request for pay increments — thereby, offering them pitiful so-called ”cushioning allowances”, and ”cost of living adjustments”, under the excuse that they (government) had no money. Government had no money for what? Civil servants were not asking for anything more than what they were already entitled to in accordance with their employment contracts as of October 2018 — a salary that was in US dollars.
Therefore, what the government was supposed to do was to continue providing its workers their salaries at the same value as in October 2018 — but, as the depreciating Zimbabwe dollar had now become the only legal tender in the country, then these had to be valued at the prevailing interbank exchange rate. Simple! What does government need more money for?
If they could pay their employees a salary of, for example, US$500 in October 2018, then what civil servants are demanding is the same salary today. Yet, in order to receive the same value in Zimbabwe dollars, it needs to be at the prevailing interbank exchange rate of US$1: $15, which makes it $7 500. However, if the same employee is currently being given $1 000, then it means the employer has deprived him or her of $6 500. As such, who has stolen from who? Who has wronged who? Thus, if there is anyone who should be taken to the Labour Court for breaching a contract, should it not be the employer? So, where does the government get the audacity to conduct disciplinary hearings against its workers, whom it has clearly wronged and dispossessed of their rightful remunerations? If anyone deserves to be fired, it certainly is not the incapacitated employee — whose compromised salary is clearly not enough to report for duty, considering the ever-rising and unaffordable cost of living — but, the minister responsible for this dispossession of rightful salaries.
Given this shameful background of the obvious unfair treatment of its employees by Zimbabwean authorities, the already wretched health delivery system will furthur be compromised , as there surely will be a huge upsurge in emigration of our valued medical practitioners. How do they imagine inviting back specialist doctors currently in the diaspora?
Will this government’s deranged and delusional thinking ever end? Let us not forget why these specialist doctors left the country in the first place – the same reason that our current medical practitioners will be moving to foreign lands…the ruthless and uncaring treatment, and abuse they are receiving at the hands of their employer.
An employer, whose spokespersons would rather utter uncharitable and reckless statements on both social and mainstream media to the effect that they preferred that these ’murderous doctors were fired’! Who is being ”murderous” in this regard?
Who has deprived our valued doctors the ability to attend to our ailing loved ones? Who has decided to fire these medical practitioners – whose cause it totally understandable – instead, of conducting genuine negotiations? Who is forcing these indispensable gallant men and women out of the country, to serve other people, while their fellow compatriots are left desperate? Who has effectively driven our critically sick loved ones to their deaths?
Why then would any right thinking foreign-based specialist doctor decide to return under such grave conditions? The Zimbabwe government should first sort out its own affairs at home before dreaming of any fantastical and unrealistic ambitions.
Tendai Ruben Mbofana is a social justice activist, writer, author, and speaker. Please feel free to contact him on — email: firstname.lastname@example.org