Civil servants in Malawi are on strike over demands for a 65 percent wage increase. They say last year's currency devaluation by President Joyce Banda has caused massive price hikes.
The closure of Malawi's Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe affects the main air routes serviced by Kenya Airways, South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines. The closure is part of a week-long public sector strike. "We are joining the strike and are shutting down the airport," Joel Mkandawire, a senior aviation union leader, told Reuters on Wednesday.
Eliah Kamphinda Banda, president of the Civil Service Trade Union in Malawi (CSTU), warned that protesters planned to storm the Office of the President and Cabinet to deliver a petition intensifying their call for better conditions of service.
If the government can bring in an automatic fuel pricing system, then "we are certain that adjustment of salaries is also achievable," Banda told DW correspondent George Mhango.
Some of the protesting workers who were singing and dancing in the streets told Mhango that they couldn't sit and watch as “others were getting rich and fat.” More than 100,000 public sector workers went on strike last week demanding a 65 percent pay hike to counter rising costs of living triggered by the devaluation of the kwacha currency.
No doctors, no medicine
The civil servants have been joined by nurses and midwives who say their income is not enough to pay transport, rent, or water and electricity bills. Speaking to DW, the head of the National Organization of Nurses and Midwives, Abraham Gama, said devaluation, inflation and the automatic pricing of fuel has made matters worse. “If we take all these factors, it means salaries of nurses, midwives and all civil servants are so low because the kwacha is being floated, there is the 49 percent devaluation and inflation figures are skyrocketing,” Gama said.
The strike has closed schools and paralyzed major hospitals, which are already short of health workers and pharmaceuticals. "I want to go back home because I can't get any help and I have seen people dying because no nurses or doctors are attending to us," Sugzyo Phiri told Reuters from her hospital bed where she is seeking treatment for malaria.
Malawi's Finance Minister Ken Lipenga said the government cannot afford to increase wage costs and is negotiating with the striking workers.
"Currently our wage bill is 97 billion kwacha ($277 million, 206 million euros), and if we agree to their demands, this will almost triple,” Lipenga told Reuters news agency.
According to him, that amount would be equivalent to the whole national budget.
The ongoing strike has piled pressure on President Joyce Banda, who took office a year ago. She instituted painful economic reforms backed by the International Monetary Fund and donors, whose aid traditionally accounts for about 40 percent of the budget. Ever since the strike began, government offices have been closed.
Economists say the lockdown has crippled Malawi's labor sector and that it is likely that public servants will not have their February salaries on time.