In the Central African country of Chad, government-paid employees have been on strike for almost one month because of salary disputes. Government ministers say they are already doing as much as they can, and are threatening to enforce a new law requiring certain government employees return to work. Phuong Tran traveled throughout Chad, and has this report for VOA.
At this regional hospital in the eastern town of Abeche, most of the beds are empty. Patients wait behind a locked gate to get into the maternity ward, but no one is letting them in yet.
Hospital director Ali Abderman says the hospital is emptier than usual, because of the strike. He says patients wait longer, or simply, do not come. He says many employees are striking because they want higher salaries.
But Chad's Minister of Public Works and Employment, Fatime Tchombi, has said the government will apply a new law that prevents government employees who provide critical services - like health care - from striking.
She says the government has offered a 12 percent salary increase, as well as restoration of a $4 monthly allowance for families.
But union leader and university professor in N'Djamena, Antoinette Moalbaye, says this is not enough compared to the union's original demand of a 300 percent increase when it started the strike on May 2.
"We want people to have enough money to live on instead of living like beggars on the street even though they are working every day," she said.
She says Chad's 1994 currency devaluation cut the value of salaries in half. The union leader says without a significant raise in three decades, people are not earning enough to survive. Chad's minimum salary is $56 a month.
Moalbaye says government employees deserve some of the wealth that is coming into the country.
"They say it is unrealistic, that the country is poor," she added. "But have you come to N'Djamena recently? We see how the money is being spent in a way that is absolutely unbelievable."
The professor says Chad's newfound oil revenue is responsible for the fancy new cars driven down Chad's poor dirt roads.
Oil production began three years ago. Union leaders say residents suffer while the government uses most of the oil revenue to fund its war against rebels.
For years, rebels in neighboring Chad and Sudan have been fighting to gain more power in their governments. Cross-border violence has displaced tens of thousands of Chadians and torched entire villages.
Michel Barka is president of the Association of Chad's Unions. He is also a member of an oil revenue watchdog group that includes Chad government, labor, civil society and religious leaders.
Barka says government officials have publicly justified spending more on weapons, because the country is at war. He says the watchdog group has access to only a small percentage of the country's total oil revenues.
In 2006, Barka says the group reviewed and made spending recommendations for some $400,000 in revenue, while he estimates there was $2 million total revenue.
But Minister Tchombi says people exaggerate the country's oil wealth.
"Oil wealth is still a dream," he explained. "It is a natural resource we are trying to exploit. People are impatient and believe what they want to in order to take care of their basic needs."
The country ranks almost at the bottom of the United Nations list of living conditions around the world.
Many residents do not have running water or electricity. Uncollected trash blows freely in the desert wind, and hang like plastic trash ornaments on brittle tree branches.
Classrooms intended for 20 students bulge with hundreds.
But for now, this school 80 kilometers from the capital in the mostly nomadic community of Mani Kossam, sits empty.
Yaya Daoud, 14, is one of the school's more than 200 students who have been out of class this past month.
He says he is impatient to go to school again. Instructors say classes were supposed to continue until June 30. Now, they do not know when the school year will officially end because of the strike.