Zambia workers strike to press for change
Lusaka - During Michael Sata's presidential campaign, he promised more money in workers' pockets. Less than three weeks after taking office, workers are holding him to it with wildcat strikes across the country.
Barely a day passes without reports of work stoppages or sit-ins to press for improved labour conditions, from mines to factories to dock workers, at firms both local and foreign, in cities and towns scattered across the map.
Sata has already ordered the labour ministry to revise the minimum wage, set at $84 a month. He has also ordered foreign companies to abide by labour laws, which workers claim are often circumvented or simply ignored.
Last week in the industrial town of Ndola, 100 workers staged a sit-in at Indian-owned Ashwas Industries, which makes plastic bags and carton boxes, saying they are paid only $50 a month.
"We are getting peanuts and we expect the government to help improve the conditions of service here," said Steven Chikonko, spokesman for the workers.
"Whenever one falls ill, the company's accounts department treats such as absenteeism and would subtract from one's salary," said Chikonko.
He said that workers were not allowed to leave to cast ballots in the national elections on September 20.
Ashwas representative Ravi Rao declined to comment on the claims.
Even workers receiving minimum wage say it's not enough.
At the nearby Zambezi Portland Cement, a Chinese-owned firm in Ndola, workers last week downed tools demanding salaries rise to $705 a month.
The protesting workers have not been organised by the Zambia Confederation of Trade Unions, the main labour body, whose leader Leonard Hikaumba urged government to find a solution.
"These stoppages should quickly come to an end because they are injurious to the economy. We need to quickly deal with this issue because it is affecting production," Hikaumba said.
"These strikes have the potential to bring down our economy," he said.
Many of the workers protesting are temporary employees, meant to be on short-term contracts that sometimes stretch into years.
More than 400 such workers at the state power utility Zesco went on strike last week to demand job security. Many temporary workers have been employed for nearly a decade, said Joseph Phiri, a spokesman for the workers.
The strikes or sit-ins have hit companies large and small, from the Chinese-owned firms like Zinc Aluminum Copper and Ore Company to informal dockworkers in Mpulungu, at the southern tip of Lake Tanganyika.
Zambia's new labour minister Fackson Shamenda said strikes were spreading because workers had not been free to express themselves under the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, which ran the country for the last two decades.
"The workers have been suppressed for too long and now they are free to talk," Shamenda told AFP.
"Employers should do right and pay the workers accordingly," he said.
Some businesses say they are trying to comply with the rules.
Zambezi Portland Cement managing director Antonio Ventriglia said the company pays the stipulated minimum wage and would not have any problems if it was adjusted upwards.
He said employees also receive $400 funeral grants and medical benefits.
"I do not know what the complaints are all about," Ventriglia said.
For Sata, the labour actions will pile on pressure for him to make good a promise to improve the lives of ordinary Zambians within 90 days of taking office - a goal many Zambians are watching impatiently.