LUSAKA, 10 August 2012 (IRIN) – “This is like a prayer answered for me. Our government has really done well to remember us, to think about us,” Priscilla Mwemba, a domestic worker in the Zambian capital Lusaka, told IRIN after the government imposed non-negotiable minimum wage scales that will more than triple the 22 year old’s monthly salary.
“Since I am a resident maid, I am paid 150,000 Kwacha [about US$30] per month. My friends [other domestic workers] who report [for work] every morning and knock off in the evening receive up to 250,000 Kwacha (US$50) sometimes. Madam says I eat her food, use her soap, water and electricity. So she can’t pay me like my friends.”
The labour minister and former trade unionist Fackson Shamenda announced in July 2012 the minimum monthly wage for domestic workers would increase from $30 to about $105, and general workers – such as shop assistants, farmworkers, sweepers and construction workers – would see their minimum monthly pay packets rise from $50 to $220, fulfilling President Michael Sata’s 2011 election promise of “more money in the pockets” of workers. The minimum wage scales came into effect on 4 July 2012.
Government is encouraging employees to report employers failing to comply with the law to the police to face prosecution and businesses are being threatened with deregistering for any violation of the minimum wage regulations.
Mwemba left school at 13, as her mother was unable to afford the fees, and is one of an estimated 50,000 domestic workers in Lusaka. “I am not educated. I can’t find any job [elsewhere]. This is the only job I can do. Good jobs are for you people who are educated,” she said.
Her day begins at 4am at the Lusaka informal settlement of Chawama, preparing breakfast for the family of five, bathing the three children before taking them to school, and then she cleans, washes clothes, fetches water and cooks. “Madam only helps me with preparing [her husband’s] breakfast in the morning. Otherwise I do everything.”
“I go home [to Kanyama, an informal centre about 15km away] for a weekend once a month, when I am paid. I give 100,000 Kwacha ($20) to my mother, then I use 50,000 Kwacha ($10) to buy things like lotions or salaula [second-hand clothes] and shoes.”
Mwemba has not yet been paid her promised increase. But she has begun dreaming of a new life, including renting a one-room flat to share with her mother. “I hope she won’t change [her mind]. I know that even 500,000 Kwacha [$100] will not be enough because I support my mother and [two] siblings…But it is still better than the 150,000 Kwacha [$30] I have been getting for two years.”
Oscar Cheupe, president of the about 3,000-strong United House and Domestic Workers Union of Zambia (UHDWUZ), told the daily Zambian newspaper, the Daily Mail, on 3 August, “We are happy that most of our members have already started getting new salaries as a result of the revised minimum wage. There are however a few employers who have requested the union to give them up to next month to effect the revised minimum wage.”
About 64 percent of Zambia’s 13 million people live on a dollar or less a day, and about 500,000 people are employed by the formal sector, according to the country’s Central Statistical Office. The new minimum wage directive has been greeted with excitement by workers and warnings of retrenchments by employers.
Alfred Masupha, president of the Zambia Federation of Employers, said the business sector was not consulted by government. “This [new law] has the potential to stifle the confidence that investors have in the country,” he said.
“It is either employers will begin laying off part of their work force to ensure they pay the new minimum wage to every employee without compromising their budgets, or they may have to look at the cost implications of their operations in Zambia.”
Workers are demanding the immediate imposition of the new minimum wage and a dispute over its delay saw mineworkers kill a Chinese supervisor and seriously injure two other Chinese nationals on August 4 at the Mamba Collum Coal Mine, about 300km south of Lusaka. According to local media reports, one miner has been charged with murder and 11 others have been charge with rioting and theft, after mineworkers also stole computers and office furniture during the protests.
“The new minimum wage is not supposed to affect unionized employees because they are all bound by the rules of collective bargaining, and are supposed to get far above the minimum wage. But what is sad is that some of our employers [in the mining sector] pay even far below the stipulated minimum wage,” president of the Mineworkers Union, Chishimba Nkole, told IRIN.
A miner at Mamba Collum Coal Mine, who declined to be named, told IRIN he receives a monthly “take home” pay of $80.
“We were very excited when the government announced the new minimum wage. But now, these Chinese [employers] are refusing to increase our salaries and are instead telling us that they will have to fire over half of the workers to pay the minimum wage,” the coal miner said.
China has more than US$1 billion of investments in the mineral-rich country, making it the largest foreign investor, but the relationship has often been fractious on the factory floor, with aggrieved workers citing poor pay and bad working conditions.
Two Chinese supervisors were charged with attempted murder after 13 Zambian miners were shot during a wage dispute two years ago at the same Mamba Collum Coal Mine. The charges were later dropped.
Chinese nationals afraid
China’s ambassador to Zambia Zhou Yuxiao told the daily newspaper The Post that the attacks on foreign employers over the minimum wage could have far-reaching consequences. “The Chinese in the country are frightened … killing is not the right way to resolve disputes. China and Zambia are all-weather friends,” Zhou said.
“While advising the Chinese business people to abide by the laws and regulations of the land, we equally ask the relevant Zambian government authorities to take concrete measures to protect the safety and security and legitimate rights of the Chinese business community in Zambia and to create an enabling environment for foreign investments.”
Information minister Kennedy Sakeni said in a statement on 7 August that security measures had been stepped-up to ensure the safety of foreign business interests and that he “wish[ed] to assure the Chinese community at Mamba Collum Coal Mine and investors at large that Zambia is safe and secure for themselves and their investment.”
More than 2,000 workers at York Farm, a leading producer of fresh vegetables and flowers in Lusaka, stopped work two weeks ago, demanding to be paid the minimum wage, while 10 construction workers in Kitwe in the mineral-rich Copperbelt province were arrested during minimum wage protests. Farm workers at York Farm are paid between $70 and $90 a month while supervisors earn between $120 and $150 per month.