Blantyre, Malawi – In his seven years as a nurse in Malawi’s civil service, Mathews Saindi has never found financial stability. Things just keep getting worse, he says.
Three years ago, his monthly salary of 330,000 kwacha ($198), although not a lot, could cover the basics for his family of four with careful budgeting. Today, he is struggling to make ends meet as the local currency has significantly lost value.
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“It’s a miracle that I manage to foot the bills with that money,” said Saindi. “I have to pay rent, utilities, school fees for my children and food, and even help extended family members. It’s not easy, it’s a lot for one to take in.”
Malawi has been battling an economic crisis that has led to fuel shortages, inflated food prices, and a shortage of foreign exchange. Last May, the local currency weakened by 25 percent in what was seen as a return to a market-determined foreign exchange rate regime to prop up dwindling forex reserves.
So, two weeks ago, the country’s central bank devalued the kwacha against the United States dollar by 44 percent.
The recent devaluation was marketed as a fix for the economy but has led to an enormous spike in the cost of living, affecting the purchasing power of individuals and families across Malawi. The country’s inflation rate is currently at 26.9 percent, according to the Reserve Bank of Malawi. Last week, President Lazarus Chakwera suspended foreign travel for himself and government officials as the country looks to reduce expenditure.
Amid the economic turbulence, various workers’ unions in the country have rallied for increased salaries, recognising the dire need to mitigate the hardships imposed by the deteriorating economy. The average salary of a civil servant with a degree is around 340,000 Kwacha ($204) after deduction.
Addressing the crisis on Tuesday, Finance Minister Felix Chithyola Banda announced a 10 percent increment in wages for civil servants during the mid-year budget presentation in parliament, ostensibly to provide some relief to struggling public sector workers.
‘Life has become unbearable’
However, the National Organisation of Nurses and Midwives of Malawi (NONM), a trade union for nurses in Malawi, strongly criticised the wage increase, branding it a mere “cushioning measure” that falls far short of addressing the dire situation.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, NONM expressed disappointment with the announcement. It labelled the 10 percent increment as “insufficient” and a “mockery” to its members, emphasising a pressing need for more substantial support amid the country’s economic downturn.
“The reports that have come from nurses and midwives are very worrying,” Shouts Simbeza, the NONM president told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview. “Life has become unbearable, especially for those that are lower level. For instance, transportation costs have now made some of them walk longer distances to the hospitals because they can no longer afford [fares] on [a] daily basis. As a result, most of them are reporting to work late while they are also very tired and exhausted.”
Saindi said this adjustment was barely enough to sustain a living. “The 10 percent increment is nothing and does not match the 44 percent devaluation of the kwacha. I am very much confused because I am failing to understand how such a small percentage can help cushion our situation.”
NONM has said it will be joining other equally concerned unions and stakeholders in demanding that the current salary adjustment be revised by a minimum of 44 percent in line with the recent currency devaluation and subsequent sharp price adjustments for essential goods and services such as food, water, and electricity.
Madalitso Njolomole, the secretary-general for the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions, a major trade union in the country said the body will engage with other unions together with the government to map the way forward.
“That increment needs to be revised,” said Njolomole.
The nurses have said that if their concerns remain unaddressed by December 15 this year, they will consider taking further action.
Boniface Chibwana, the national coordinator for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, a faith-based local nonprofit that often comments on the standard of living, said the wages of individuals should match the cost of living. “If we are to compare Malawi to other countries in the SADC [Southern Africa bloc] region, I think it’s fair to say Malawi is at the bottom when it comes to paying employees below the minimum wage.”
Because of the long hours spent at the clinic, Saindi said it is almost impossible to explore other revenue streams to boost his pay. “I don’t have that sort of time to have other endeavours to make some extra money, I wish that was the case.”
“Sometimes, I feel the work I do is underappreciated,” he added. “The work that we put in as health workers does not match the pay that we take home, it’s very sad.”