A draft pension bill has created frustration and sometimes even panic among workers in Malawi, with some seeking early retirement before it passes. The bone of contention is a section setting the retirement age for women at 55 and men at 60.
Labor experts say the age requirement is far too high for a country like Malawi. The World Health Organization estimates the average life expectancy there at 50 years.
If passed, the bill would be Malawi?s first legislation specifying a retirement age.
Until now, companies have made their own arrangements with their employees, who pay into a pension fund that they can access whenever they need to.
The proposed bill would formalize pension plans, making them mandatory and allowing employees to access them only after they have reached the legal retirement age.
According to the draft bill, workers could retire before the specified age only under special circumstances, including medically certified health problems or permanent emigration from Malawi.
The bill would prevent most people from being able to reap the benefits of their labor, says Luther Mambala, president of the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU)
He says the draft bill has been modeled on the pension laws of developed countries, where life expectancy is high, and does not take into account the shorter life expectancy in Malawi:
?The number of years should be flexible. Even the retirement age should be reduced to 45 years, because we are looking at [a 50-year] life expectancy in Malawi. For you and me to reach the age mentioned in the pension bill is just for God?s grace.?
Some employees have already resigned and have begun collecting their pensions, fearing that if the bill is passed by parliament they will not see any of their money soon.
Among them is Gerald Gwaza, a 40-year-old engineer who has been contributing to his company?s savings plan for nine years:
"To say the truth, I had no intention of resigning anytime soon. But (I) think my plans would be affected if I waited for the bill to be passed before I collect my money. And also, waiting for another 20 years to collect my pension was too far. I thought I would first collect this one and start afresh.?
The proposed bill would also hurt Malawians? ability to apply for loans. Employees can use their pension fund as security for a loan, but since the government announced the draft pension bill, banks have changed the rules.
Anne Magola, the corporate affairs manager at the National Bank of Malawi, told a local newspaper, The Daily Times, that the bank is now asking the employer to confirm that the employee works for that organization. Furthermore, the bank is asking for direct deposit of the employee?s salary so it can automatically deduct the monthly loan payment.
The proposed bill denies workers their rights, says Billy Banda, the executive director of the human rights organization, Malawi Watch.
Banda has urged Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika to speak up, saying he?s the only one who can put the issue to rest:
?Your Excellency, the majority of members of parliament you have got was given on trust and don?t allow them to abuse their mandate [by rushing into passing the pension bill]. The pension bill is a very clear challenge for all of us. We are asking you to reconsider not to allow this proposed bill, which is not good enough to the people to be passed into law.?
There was no immediate comment from President Mutharika. But Malawi?s political leaders say the proposed pension bill will ultimately benefit workers.
Labor Minister Yunus Mussa says it seeks to safeguard workers after retirement and make it possible for older people to continue enjoying life.
The union recently held awareness campaigns about the draft bill throughout the country. Since then, workers have been calling on the government to review the bill.
The pension draft bill has been referred to the Parliamentary Committee on Budget and Finance for possible amendments before it is presented in the National Assembly.
The Congress of Trade Unions has threatened the government with strikes if workers? concerns are not taken into account.