The never-ending plight of civil servants

HARARE - Junior ranks among Zimbabwe’s 230 000-strong civil servants have always been on the receiving end of raw deals.

Although they earn little, collectively,  they are a powerhouse when their earnings are added up.

They are the least paid in the region, earning an average $300.

Their bosses, the permanent secretaries, who keep government machinery running, get about $800, but wield a lot of power and have many privileges.

Permanent secretaries oversee parastatals whose bosses earn many times what they take home and a number have benefited from their symbiotic relationship.

They say those who handle sand are always left with grains on their hands.

After three permanent secretaries who sat on the Premier Service Medical Aid Society (Psmas) board were said to have earned big sums of money, Cabinet has decided to ban them from sitting on parastatal boards. But it’s like closing the stable door after the horses have bolted.

The top echelons have something to show for rubbing shoulders with the powers that be — the government ministers.

They have largesse in the form of farms and the state-of-the-art vehicles, they buy at book value after a few years.

It’s the lower ranks that get squeezed from within and without.

Civil servants  used to get groceries worth $200 a month but that facility has since been withdrawn, although junior ranks continue to get  free transport to and from home,  their bosses drive home in C-class Mercedes Benzes. 

The country’s MPs get around $1 000 a month,  a princely sum, in a country where wilting industry has taken its pay cue from government salaries.

Private sector workers are keenly aware of the dangers of losing the few jobs that are still available, while their unions have lost their power from depleted numbers.

The latest statistics show that over 9 500 workers have lost their jobs since the beginning of the year after 75 companies closed shop.

Top dogs in industry, like their counterparts in non-performing parastatals, live large at the expense of the lower ranks.

Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa says government workers gobble up nearly 75 percent of the State’s monthly income of about $400m, a figure he says is unsustainable.

Some say this is so because of ghost workers numbering up to

70 000  according to a 2010 Ernst and Young (India) audit  report for the ministry of the Public Service.

Analysts feel government could afford to double civil servants salaries if they exorcised ghost workers.

The audit was  carried out with funding from the World Bank as a condition of funding the Staff  Monitored Programme (SMP). It showed  ghost workers mostly untrained and unqualified Zanu PF functionaries were drawing salaries without providing useful services. Zanu PF rejected the report.

Tendai Biti said then Zimbabwe needed comprehensive service sector reforms to flush out ghost workers, remove reluctant employees and contain the wage bill.

“The ghost workers have to go. We can’t continue wasting taxpayers funds paying spooks and people who are not working,” he said.

Civil servants have been trying to get the government to pay them a minimum salary matching the poverty datum line which currently stands at $540 since 2009. They had hoped by pushing up those at the bottom, they would help push up those in the upper rungs.

But government workers recently accepted a $79 pay adjustment, bringing the least paid worker’s pay packet to $375 from $296 after treasury said it was broke.

Even after being given the pay rise, government has deferred implementation to April because of lack of funds. There are doubts the promise will be fulfilled.

Many government workers recently learnt to their horror that their employer has not been remitting moneys deducted from their salaries to pay for furniture and other household items acquired on hire purchase as well as bank loans.

They now say there is a danger they could lose their properties and could be hauled before the courts for defaulting on payments.

In one of his campaign speeches before the July 31 polls, President Robert Mugabe wooed civil servants’ votes by promising to double their salaries.  But fulfilling the promise has been problematic.

Raymond Majongwe, Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe secretary general now says about the promises: “Mugabe should stop making false promises. We are tired of promises which never come to fruition. We heard it during the campaign trail and we heard it after elections but on the ground nothing is happening.”

During the five-year period of the Government of National Unity, then MDC Finance minister Tendai Biti was often blamed by Zanu PF, their coalition partners, for not granting pay hikes to civil servants. 

Biti, on his part, would point out he was not receiving remittances from diamond revenues from Chiadzwa.

Government has been borrowing money to pay its workers, prompting Biti, the MDC shadow minister of Finance, to declare: “The government has been borrowing to pay the wage bill, in the process committing the cardinal sin that you do not borrow for consumption or recurrent expenditure.”

In the mid-1990’s, ministers and senior government officials looted money from a housing scheme for junior government workers.

The “pay for your house scheme” lost millions of dollars when 185 senior officials withdrew the money to build their houses or extend existing ones.

First lady Grace Mugabe was accused of using the money to build a three-story 30-roomed house in Harare’s leafy suburb of Borrowdale. 

But she claimed she had built the house using money saved from her earlier job as a government secretary before she married Mugabe.

She later sold the house — now being used as the Libyan embassy — to the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi for a cool $3 million.

Since then, many have exploited civil servants efficient stop order system, including loan sharks, cellphone vendors and unscrupulous businesspersons,  and,  regrettably, unions. Some members of the Zimbabwe Teachers’ Union are claiming contributions totalling $1 million for a housing scheme have allegedly not been accounted for. 

Flamboyant businessman-cum-musician Energy Mutodi has been hauled before the courts in Harare and Mutare, facing charges of fleecing a total of $8 million from 16 000 unsuspecting civil servants — $6m from Harare and $2m from Mutare after promising them land on which to build houses.

Mutodi, 34,  is accused of  having formed the National Housing Delivery Trust  and persuaded civil servants to deposits money through the Salary Services Bureau  stop order facility into his bank account.

Prosecutor Tungamirai Chakurira said the trust account was meant to secure all contributions from members in the trust and the funds would be used to procure land, service and build houses for clients under different schemes.

It is alleged Mutodi later changed the account signing arrangement, made himself sole signatory,  allegedly withdrew all the money and used it for other purposes.

In the “salarygate” scam, Psmas, which provides health insurance for mainly 800 000 civil servants and private individuals showed the top executives and board members in the organisation were earning salaries  and allowances which are out of this world.

Civil servants have been complaining their contributions to Psmas was hiked yet the organisation is struggling to have its operating licence renewed and it owes hospitals and other service providers.

Documents showed the former Psmas group chief executive Cuthbert Dube, earned a basic monthly salary of $230 000 as at December 2012.

Dube was not only taking a hefty basic salary as at December last year, but was entitled to a $500 000 long service-award payment every five years, $50 000 travel allowance per trip and another $20 000 for his partner, unlimited fuel and free medical aid — yet he was also raking in $40 000 weekly towards medical treatment.

Ladistous Zunde of the  Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe says most civil servants have been failing to access medical care and were repeatedly being told Psmas had run out of funds.

“As far as we are concerned, there are some people with the audacity to go to work and get such money when the generality of government workers are wallowing in poverty is appalling.”

The dream to own a house has been a nightmare for many  low income Zimbabweans, including civil servants. 

An elderly woman who was about to retire from the civil service broke down recently and needed counselling.

She had lost money in a number of housing schemes and her landlord had increased rent for her two rooms. She said her situation was hopeless.

There seems to be no respite in sight for desperate low income civil servants who believe the next housing scheme may just be the one that delivers a house to them.

It’s another case of the desperate dealing with the greedy, with the desperate always losing.

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