Swaziland’s workers unions petitioned the government of King Mswati III, to release of a salary review report that highlights working conditions of public sector workers across the country.
Union leaders, backed by pro-democracy and civil society groups, warn that if the government continues to refuse to release the report, they would organize a series of nationwide demonstrations to put pressure on the administration to do so.
The report, workers union leaders say, calls for an increase in salaries for workers.
The government initially said the report is being considered by the cabinet, insisting that it was not for public consumption. But in an about face, a senior official at the ministry of public service asked union leaders to give the government time to deliberate on the report before releasing it to the public.
But the union leaders say this is yet another attempt by the administration to stall and thwart attempts by workers to demand pay increases and better working conditions.
Wandile Dludlu, national coordinator for a pro-democracy group known as the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF), says the workers have issued an ultimatum to the government as a warning of actions to be taken if it continues to refuse to release the report.
“The report has to do with the quality of working conditions of workers in general, so how on earth do you then refuse workers from having access to such a report? So we have only given them until next week to release the report,” said Dludlu.
“We have all agreed in principle that let’s not sit back to organize and mobilizing and raising as much awareness to public sector unions around the need that very soon we may need to take a national activity in as far as petitioning the cabinet directly now, the office of the prime minister… So we are not relaxed, we are not sitting on our laurels. We will hit the ground to prepare for a much deeper a more serious punch. Because the government needs to be pushed in Swaziland. It never listens, until it’s kicked around.”
The government in the capital, Mbabane, has often blamed the recent global economic downturn for its inability to raise the pay of public sector workers. Prime Minister Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini and other senior government officials have said there is a need for belt tightening in the coming year.
The administration usually accuses the pro-democracy groups of fomenting trouble by engaging in violent activities including acts of terrorism to destabilize the country. Supporters of the government say pro-democracy groups including SUDF often hijack issues to destabilize the country.
“Well we expect any kind of response coming from the state. Historically, they have never had good words for situations in times like these… But what is important is the quality of life of the ordinary worker who is a recipient of a system that does not take serious the basic needs of workers,” said Dludlu.
The government plans to buy new cars for use by visiting heads of state and government when Swaziland hosts the Southern African Development Community (SADC) meeting next year. Pro-democracy groups say the planned purchases, which they estimate at more than $11 million, reflect misplaced government priorities.
Supporters of the government insist the administration has an obligation to host the summit as a member of the regional bloc. But Dludlu argued that the government cannot legitimately spend extravagantly on the summit while claiming it cannot afford to increase the pay of public sector workers.
“The reason why we are putting this demand is that on one hand they are saying the workers must tighten their belt, but they at the top are loosening their own belt, by spending more, buying new cars, a fleet of cars (to host) the SADC meeting. The expenditure of the monarchy is going up, but they are saying to the workers, we must tighten belt. It is on the basis of that is why we are not listening to them at all, because they seem not to walk their talk,” said Dludlu.
“The summit cannot be done at the expense of the abject poverty that continues to ground and grind Swazis.”