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Judicial Strike Paralyzes Court Operations in Malawi

  • Lameck Masina

Staff workers vow to continue protest until demands are met

A three-week old strike in Malawi has paralyzed the courts and caused overcrowding in jail cells.

Staff workers throughout the judiciary system want a 50 percent salary increase approved by parliament five years ago.

They say they will not return to work unless the government meets their demands.

Court marshals, clerks and messengers are among the staff workers who began a sit-in strike on January 9. They want a promised pay increase, but government spokesperson Patricia Kaliati says financial problems make a it impossible for one at this time.

Kaliati says negotiations are underway with senor officers of the judiciary to find a solution.

She points out that the issue will not be resolved overnight. She asks that those who are staging a strike should be patient enough to wait for the progress of the negotiations.

On the other hand, spokesperson for the striking workers Austin Kamanga says he wonders why workers in the judicial system are treated differently from other civil servants.

Working conditions for workers in the court system are reviewed every three years, while others in government often receive yearly pay increases.

The issue at stake according to Kamanga is not as complex as one would want people to believe. He says, “ these are straight forward issues that require designated persons to address them.”

The workers held a similar strike in 2008 to force the government to implement the pay increase approved by the legislature two years earlier. But the strike was cancelled three days later after government authorities promised to look into their grievances. They say they’ve been waiting ever since.

Kamanga says this time around the negotiations would not make them stop striking.

He says “this is the third time we having such kind of negotiations, and they always come when people have risen up for their rights. Although there are signals, it is difficult for us to trust them. This time we want action, real action. We are continuing with the strike.”

Meanwhile a grouping of practicing lawyers the Malawi Law Society has joined a number of organizations and institutions pushing for a speedy resolution to the protest.

John Gift Mwakhwawa the law society’s president is seriously concerned.

“Junior workers are stopping at nothing, except the implementation of the review. If they continue to strike it means that most of the lawyers are jobless. And it is not only the lawyers who have been affected. There are people who have been remanded in prisons and all these companies have got cases in courts. Those cases are stalling because there is nothing that can be done and that has a negative impact on the economy,” Mwakhwawa asserts.

National Police Spokesperson Davie Chingwalu says the strike has led to overcrowding of jail cells across the country.

“This strike has affected a lot. As you know, people commit crimes on a daily basis and we are arresting them daily, Chingwalu explains. "As justice dictates once we arrest these suspects, we are supposed to take them before a court of law [and they should be given bail within 48 hours]. So what we are doing right now is to keep them in our cells. Those with minor cases we are giving them bail but those with serious crimes are just taken to prisons to keep them on remand -- although I understand that the prisons are also congested.”

Chingwalu says the police cannot stop arresting crime suspects. That suggestion comes from activists who say holding people in jail without charging them is a violation of their human rights.

"There is no way we can stop arresting suspects. That is our duty. If we stop arresting people who have committed an offence then why are we there as police? But we have to arrest them. If there is problem of taking them to court let it be,” Chingwalu says.

But Finance Minister Ken LipengaLipenga told local weekly Saturday Nation that it is unfortunate that money from the budget is needed for more pressing issues like paying for imported fuel. The government notes that the judiciary is already the highest paid public institution in the country.

However, judges have threatened to join the strike if the government says the pay increases will not be implemented.

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