Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Zimbabwe: Harare's workers form “walking clubs” as they can't afford public transport

It is 4 a.m. and still dark in the low-income suburb of Kuwadzana, about 10km outside the central business district (CBD) of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. There has been no electricity in Kuwadzana for around two weeks.

Bobbing beams of light from the flashlights of some 20 men and women are the only source of light in the inky blackness. They stop near the local shopping centre, where they speak in whispers. Several members of the group yawn loudly.

After 10 minutes they move off in the direction of the city, but shrill whistles pierce the quiet dawn, signalling that latecomers and other stragglers are being left behind. There is a shout in the darkness and two men and a woman join their colleagues. The group are all professionals who can no longer afford the high transport fares in an economic environment where earnings are wiped away by galloping inflation.

The government has not publicly released official inflation figures for the last two months but the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that the rate is now 100,000 percent and still rising.

Granger Phiri, one of the walkers, told IRIN that thousands of workers in Harare's low-income and middle-density suburbs had formed “walking clubs” because they could no longer afford the cost of public transport. As they near the city centre, the group merges with other walking clubs.
"I have been a member of the local walking club for the past seven months, as all my earnings would be depleted if I used public taxis for 15 days," said Phiri, a junior official in the civil service in the CBD. He said he earned Z$30 million a month (US$15 at the parallel market rate of Z$2 million to US$1), but a single trip to town costs Z$1 million (US$0.50).

Making more money

Why go through the agony of walking 20km every day just to earn US$15 a month? Phiri smiled and pointed to a bulging knapsack on his back. "There is one thing that the human body cannot do without and that is food. I sell plain bread sandwiches to my colleagues. I also sell sliced tomatoes and cucumbers to colleagues who can afford them, and that supplements my income."

The telephones at work also come in handy: "I am now known as the person who can pass messages to friends and relatives in the country and beyond our borders through the government telephones which I use. Of course that comes at a cost, which adds to my income."

Phiri said he was not embarrassed at having to resort to unorthodox methods to earn a living. "Everybody is selling something to somebody in order to survive. Very little work is ever done. We have colleagues who have turned to prostitution for survival, while others take annual vacations in neighbouring countries such as Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa to work as maids or farm labourers."

He said South Africa was the destination of choice for most civil servants, because an arrangement between the two governments meant they were not restricted by stringent visa requirements. "All that is required is a current payslip and a passport, and that can enable you to work for several days before returning."

Neglecting workers could do more harm

Wellington Chibhebhe, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, (ZCTU), a labour federation, told IRIN that companies and the civil service were losing a lot of production time because workers were too tired to work.

According to ZCTU research, workers woke up as early as 3 a.m. to go to work and only got back home at 11 p.m. "We are calling on employers to meet the full monthly [transport] costs for the workers because this [walking to work] creates a scenario whereby employees are subsidising the operations of companies and the civil service."

Chibhebhe said employers needed to relate salaries to the "poverty datum line" of Z$200 million (US$200) a month, otherwise they could be exposing themselves to the risk of theft. "What is obviously evident is that there are scenarios that workers would steal from employers or conduct private business using the employer's time and resources, which has a serious negative impact on productivity."

Published with the permission of IRIN
Disclaimer: This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or Mike Hitchen Consulting
Photo: Copyright