YAOUNDE — On the streets of the capital, insults rain down on riot-police who block long-retrenched workers from entering banks to collect money owed to them decades after their jobs were cut.
Most have been awaiting promised severance packages since the economic crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s that led government officials to liquidate or privatize some 50 public enterprises as part of a structural adjustment program. As a result, more than 20,000 people lost their jobs, and many have spent years protesting in front of their former workplaces to no avail.
But now it appears the decision to publicize their plight has finally elicited a response. Cameroon Finance Minister Alamine Ousmane Mey vowed to make available about $4 million to settle the longstanding claims over the next two months — seemingly good news that, for many, will be believed only when it happens.
"I've been sleeping out in the open and have nothing except about $2," says 56-year- old Gael Mbozo, just one of 15 tired-looking women who have been sleeping in a courtyard in front of a bank, just a handful of the protesters who have traveled long distances to push their demands ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections on September 30.
Wondering how long she can continue to live on such meager amount, her frustration resonates with scores of other retrenched workers who have been protesting in front of government ministries and blocking traffic in and around the city.
Tsafack Anatol, 60, for example, says he heard about the settlement offer on CRTV, the state broadcaster that issued Mey's invitation to those with grievances to come to Yaounde to collect. Anatol travelled 230 miles from his home town in Foumban but says he is not sure what is supposed to happen next.
“They called us to come and take money," he said. "We came and nothing has been done. So for almost one week people have been standing here and nothing has been done. We do not know why they have been keeping us here until today. We don’t know where to stay, we know nothing.”
“I borrowed money to pay transport and come here. If they don’t pay me, how will I go back?" asks 60-year-old Essumbe Victor of southwest Cameroon. "I cannot go back.”
In a telephone interview with VOA, the finance minister confirmed that the government has negotiated with workers to accept the severance package, and that he did invite them to Yaounde, but that many do not understand the process required to receive the pay-out.
"They have to be paid in two different installments," Mey said. "The first part of the payment is going on now and the second part of the payment will be done in the months ahead to finally settle their claims.
He also promised that expenses related to the retrenched workers stay in Yaounde will also be covered.
"The government will pay for their transportation to and from Yaounde and their stay in Yaounde," he said.
But some of the workers worry that this is only a pre-election promise made to calm the protests and that they will still be waiting for their severance package long after votes are cast.