Last week, President Jakaya Kikwete made it clear to Tanzanian workers that their demand for a hike in the minimum wage to 315,000/- was simply unattainable -- now or in the immediate future.
The hike was being demanded by the Trade Union Congress of Tanzania (TUCTA) as one of the conditions to halt the postponed national-wide workers’ strike earlier planned to go into effect from 5 May 2010.
The president, not only denounced the planned strike as illegal but went further, branding TUCTA leaders as “hypocrites” and “liars”. He told the nation in a televised address that TUCTA’s proposed minimum wage was an unrealistic demand because it would require the government to spend some 6.9 trillion shillings on workers’ salaries alone, while total state revenues projected for 2010/2011 stood at a lower figure of about 5.8 trillion.
If TUCTA’s demand was implemented it would have meant that the government would incur a deficit of over one trillion shillings for the salary budget alone, meaning also that there would be no revenues left for other necessary government expenditures.
It is a safe bet that nobody perhaps knows the state of the national economy—and the amounts stashed in government coffers—better than the president. And, of course he should. After all he is an economist, among many other attributes, and in addition is surrounded by all the state economic paraphernalia and other numerous think-tanks.
But analysts may be intrigued to ask why, TUCTA, an umbrella of workers nation-wide comprising notable economists, could have failed to figure out the true nature of the domestic economic situation and instead insisted on 315,000/- minimum salary. Part of the answer lies in the fact that it is very difficult to imagine how much the government is worth. There are too many contradictory facts whenever the issue of national income is raised.
This is the country where a man working for the same cash-strapped government is allowed to spend over a billion shillings of tax-payers’ money to refurbish his official residence, complete with swimming pools—most of us don’t know even how to swim anyway—while millions of down-trodden villagers live in shacks worth 20,000/-, including the village where the lavish-spending official hails from.
Our land is also the place where top bureaucrats and their ilk unashamedly make 30-kilometre round trips from their posh homes in Masaki, Oysterbay or Mbezi to their city-centre offices in latest luxurious Toyota VX heavy-duty vehicle, costing tens of millions of shillings, where simple Japanese salon cars or land-rovers could do with a premium to the government. Among the luxurious riders are the “economists” advising the president that this country is very poor.
The heavy-duty four-wheeled vehicles could be reserved for long trips—or is it because the officials make frequent trips to “familiarize” with the people—or for up-country duty stations with most difficult road conditions, and still spare the government with extra billions enough to buy thousands of tractors for “Kilimo Kwanza.”
The country is also the place where people who claim to be “representing the people”—they prefer the term Honourable MP—walks away with tens of millions in statutory benefits and demands more perks after “serving” for a single term of five years, while an average government worker is paid far less than that amount upon retirement after enduring harsh working conditions for 30 years or more.
The government spends millions—or billions—to accommodate newly appointed or relocated officials in expensive hotel suites because a previous administration had sold off at throw-away prices (they had never been disclosed to the public to scrutinize) all the government residential quarters (perhaps save for State House), where the new appointees could have stayed at a relatively cheaper cost. Those asking for explanations are deemed opponents of political establishment, or even traitors of the nation.
The image reflected by these and many other outlandish and artificial styles of life create the picture that indeed the government is rich enough to pay better wages to its employees. Such illusions could have led TUCTA to demand a much higher wage.
Therefore, it is not TUCTA leaders alone who are “hypocrites” and “liars” but the majority of us, Tanzanians are, too. How is it possible for a worker in Dar es Salaam, for example, to live on a salary of 80,000/- per month, and be able to pay for rent, food, transport and many other incidentals as well as take care of his or her family—call it extended family in the African high-birth rate fashion—on a daily basis for four weeks? Yet we pretend that people can live that way in a dignified way in a city rated as one of the most expensive in Sub-Saharan Africa. If that is not hypocrisy, then it should be something even much more sinister.
As a result, many low-income cadres have learned the rules of the game. They have devised scheme—divine or not—to top up their meager incomes, often at a greater cost to the government itself and national progress in general. Part of the implication is that petty corruption is rampant, and it will not be easy to address it. Only a few employees truly concentrate in their work—their minds and ears are somewhere else in their private petty and grand projects.
Teachers have designed part-time tutorial classes, not really to “teach” but to earn extra income. They have little time left to prepare lessons for the next day, yet we wonder why the quality of education is falling. Relatives have learned that it necessary to give a nurse “something” to take proper care of their hospitalized sibling. These are among our common ways of life. As long as there will be tomorrow, there is no problem, life goes on!
Another aspect that analysts may find intriguing in the president’s remarks was the apparent politization of the government—TUCTA standoff. TUCTA’s reportedly hypocritical behaviour in the negotiations with government authorities was suspected to embody political opposition. The President said plainly that he was not worried of losing workers’ votes in the next general elections; if that was the price he had to pay for not agreeing with the proposed 315,000/- minimum salary.
Meanwhile, TUCTA’s acting secretary general Nicolaus Mgaya, reacting to the president’s national address through elders of Dar es Salaam Region, was quoted as saying that Kikwete’s threat to sack government employees who would have gone on strike amounted to ‘dictatorial rule’. Obviously the two sides had gone a little—if not exactly—overboard.
Matters had better be put into proper context. Everybody in this country agrees that the majority of low-income workers (both in government and private sector) are not getting a living wage—an amount sufficient to provide “minimally satisfactory living conditions.”
Inflation has risen and the shilling has tumbled in recent years. Some estimates suggest that 100/- today is worth 50/- of its value six years ago. But the minimum salary has not been raised high enough to cover currency depreciation effects. The economy as a whole may have been growing, but many low-income groups continue to struggle to make ends meet.
At the same time there have been little tax breaks. Tax rates have remained almost stagnant, including the famous PAYE, hardly commensurate with the real value of the domestic currency. The majority of low-income workers are getting poorer. The situation is worse when people have to bribe to get some common public services.
Of course, it is also true that high living wages may lead to higher unemployment, as employers fire workers to cut down the wage bill, or factories close down altogether. High wages may also be a disincentive to prospective investors, particularly in the services and rural sectors, some people say.
Perhaps the debate here in our country should not be about the minimum salary, but rather the living wage. The minimum wage varies because it is supposed to take into account the basic needs, which differ from one city or country to another, depending on the general state of the economy and the policies in place.
Nobody expects Tanzanian workers to demand wages equal to those paid in advanced economies, but in any given context the pay should be an amount sufficient enough to live on. In our present circumstances that seems impossible, because the economy cannot shoulder it.
If the economy matters, then the way in which people share the “national cake” should also matter. Income disparity in our country has become very acute. If the economy does not permit giving workers a living wage—as the president explained—then let us all share the burden of austerity. Austerity should cut cross the broader national spectrum and not only be confined to the denizens of the bottom class, while some “citizens” swagger and wallow in wealth.