Municipal workers sing the blues

Ahead of last year’s elections the government ordered municipalities to write off residents’ debts. Now councils nationwide are on their knees – unable to pay staff or deliver services. They blame this decision for impoverishing them, reports TAWANDA MAJONI.

The residents are demanding services.
The residents are demanding services.

John Mabwe* religiously reports for work at the Chitungwiza City Council every day – despite not having been paid for more than a year.

From Monday to Friday, he walks the two kilometres from his rented house in the dormitory town, carries out assigned duties as usual and goes back home. He has worked for the council for six years.

In desperation Mabwe, 42, has turned to one of the local Pentecostal churches that preach the prosperity gospel for salvation. But there has been no solution to his woes yet.

“I am surviving by the grace of God. I cannot understand how I have managed to scrape through in the past year, living from hand to mouth. I have lost a lot of weight because, every day, I think a lot about how my family and I will survive the next day,” Mabwe told The Zimbabwean.

No money for salaries

He sold the residential stand he acquired three years ago when his employer arranged for staff to build their own houses in order to keep his two daughters in secondary school. But now the $3,000 he got from selling the plot has been used up and he has moved the children to a local school.

His unemployed wife has resorted to vending at the bustling Zengeza 2 shopping centre, but she is only getting enough for bread and bare essentials and hardly any to save.

Mabwe is part of the 1,000 plus workforce at the Chitungwiza municipality who are struggling to make ends meet because their employer has no money to pay their salaries. The municipality has, in the past year, given junior employees part of their salaries in some months, but has failed to do so for the majority of the period.

In a recent interview, Chitungwiza mayor, Phillip Mutoti, admitted his council was experiencing severe financial problems, even though he claimed employees were receiving their salaries.

Debt collectors

Mutoti attributed the liquidity crunch that council is facing to residents’ resistance to pay rates, adding that government’s plans to demolish more than 14,000 unauthorised houses had worsened their problem because a significant number of the owners had also stopped paying their bills because of uncertainty.

The municipality, like the rest of urban and rural councils which are suffering acute financial constraints, has engaged debt collectors to boost revenue collection, but employees interviewed said not much was getting into council coffers.

Corrupt managers

“The residents are demanding services first, and understandably so. It is difficult for council to claim money from the people when it is failing to collect rubbish or supply water to them,” said a female employee.

“Revenue collection has also been made difficult by corrupt managers who, once money gets in, they share among themselves instead of saving it to pay us,” she added.

Municipal revenue that used to surpass $2 million a month has dropped to less than a million, according to sources. The council has reportedly managed to secure a $1.6 million loan from a local bank, but the workers considers it too little to pay them off the thousands of dollars they are owed; another leading bank refused to loan the council money, say sources.

Government last year ordered municipalities to write off residents’ debts and councils nationwide blame this decision for impoverishing them.

The majority of the employees at Chitungwiza City Council reside in the sprawling town that was originally set up to accommodate workers commuting to Harare, so they can walk or take short hikes to work that cost half a dollar, sometimes getting free municipality vehicle rides.

Job action

“Those that live outside Chitungwiza are particularly affected and they sometimes skip work because they cannot afford daily transport fares. This also applies to employees who reside in the town but their residences are far away from the offices,” said another employee who also refused being named.

He added that management had recently ordered everyone to report for work without fail and write reports whenever they failed to do, “and all of us have no choice but to come, despite the difficulties were are facing, because we fear losing our jobs”.

The council was recently rocked by a job action that saw employees withdrawing their services as they pressed to be paid. But the labour ministry moved in and ordered the workers back, arguing that their services were too essential to allow for industrial action.

The workers have returned to work and some of the individuals who spearheaded the strike have been suspended, and one employee said management was holding 400 letters of suspension that it intended to serve on other striking workers.

No medical care

The employees are struggling to access medical attention because council is not remitting money to the Premier Service Medical Aid Society (PSMAS).

Sheila Moyo*, a municipal employee, recently fell ill from suspected typhoid but, when she went to a private hospital in Chitungwiza, her PSMAS medical aid card was dishonoured because the municipality had not paid any money to the medical aid society.

“Since I am receiving no salary, no money was going to PSMAS. Management advised me to find money elsewhere saying it would reimburse me after treatment, and my brother who works for a bank had to come to my rescue,” she said.

Moyo has withdrawn her four year son from crèche and owes her daughter’s primary school two terms of school fees amounting to about $70. She has also stopped studying for the management diploma she commenced last year because she cannot raise the required fees.

Marvelous Khumalo, a former MDC MP and director of Chitungwiza Residents Trust (Chitrest), said low morale at the municipality was negatively impacting on service delivery.

“You can’t expect a disgruntled workforce to deliver, so council must find ways of adequately remunerating its employees. On the other hand, it must come up with low cost strategies to ensure an improvement in service delivery to motivate residents to pay rates,” he said.

All municipalities in Zimbabwe are experiencing problems similar to those at Chitungwiza.

*Not their real names

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