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On May Day, Zimbabwe's Biggest Union Threatens Protests Over Low Wages

A showdown is looming between the cash strapped Zimbabwean government and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions whose leaders threatened at a May Day rally to stage street protests over the low wages received by the few who hold jobs.

ZCTU President Lovemore Matombo told workers gathered to celebrate the May Day holiday at a Harare stadium that the union would organize demonstrations if the government fails to raise salaries from the current stipend of US$100 a month to at least US$454.

Matombo said Zimbabwean workers were subsidizing the government because their wages are beneath the poverty line, describing their plight as "forced labor."

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist and guest of honor at the May Day celebration, said state coffers were empty and asked workers to give the government the time it needs to mobilize resources to address their grievances.

About 90% of the Zimbabwean work force is jobless. Conditions for business have improved since the government abandoned the worthless Zimbabwean dollar and authorized the use of a mix of hard currencies including the U.S. dollar and South African rand, but most firms say they are short on currency and many companies pay their employees in kind.

Studio 7 correspondent Thomas Chiripasi reported from Harare.

Labor expert Munyaradzi Gwisai said that while the presence of government officials at the Workers' Day celebrations was a welcome change in Zimbabwe, he warned that the government and ZCTU are heading for a showdown on wages.

Gwisai, chairman of the Zimbabwe Labor Center, said the absence of Finance Minister Tendai Biti showed that the government lacked sensitivity to the plight of workers.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...