Saturday, January 09, 2010

There’s a crisis looming at UNZA

There’s a crisis looming at UNZA
By Editor
Sat 09 Jan. 2010, 04:01 CAT

There are serious problems at the University of Zambia which need urgent solutions. And it is good that the University of Zambia Lecturers and Researchers Union realise the need to solve these problems through negotiations and not strike action. According to the University of Zambia Lecturers and Researchers Union, lecturers are owed over K400 billion.

Truly, this is a lot of money and those who are owed this money can’t do anything until it is paid. And they must be facing serious problems to meet school requirements and other necessities of life for their families. We are also told that people who retired in 2004 haven’t yet been paid their benefits. It is difficult to understand how they are surviving. Money has to be found to pay these people their dues.

We do appreciate the financial difficulties the government has in meeting its obligations to our people. But it is also difficult to understand why the same government that has problems paying retirees finds it easier to pay politicians their dues without much delay. Politicians easily get their gratuities before even their terms of office expire. Our members of parliament are usually paid mid-term gratuity when the people they are elected to serve go without their retirement benefits for six years or more.

When it comes to the operations of politicians, money is always found, their requirements are always met. Other suppliers of goods and services to the government seem to be given preference over those who sell their labour as employees. Suppliers of all sorts of services get their money from government much faster than retirees. It’s understandable when the government doesn’t have money because it can only give what it has and nothing more. But austerity needs to be equally shared among all. It shouldn’t be only workers sacrificing, all – from the president downwards – should be sacrificing.

But it seems this government only understands one language – that of conflict, strike actions and protests. Conflict is costly and should as far as possible be avoided. There is an injustice here. And we know that where there is injustice, there is usually resistance and rebellion.

But who gains anything from such conflicts? The government doesn’t gain anything because usually many hours of work are lost. Sometimes even property gets destroyed. Strike actions are also not the best options for workers seeking redress to their problems. But strike actions are sometimes the only sensible option for workers.

Nothing they attain seems to be granted to them graciously. Anything they attain, it would appear, has to be granted to them only after a grueling fight, after strikes. They know they have to fight. The worker has to keep up a constant fight in order to obtain some small benefit from this social and economic order. He has to fight so that his most elemental rights would be respected. The worker knows that what he doesn’t do for himself, nobody else will do for him. The worker knows that what he doesn’t win by his own work, nobody will win it for him.

The worker works for others but nobody ever works for him. He gives everything with generosity, he gives his sweat and energy. And many times he denies himself hours of rest. He gives to everybody, but to him, nobody ever gives anything. What he doesn’t do for himself, nobody ever does it for him. But he doesn’t govern, others govern in his stead and govern against him. They have invented a democracy for the worker – a strange, a very strange democracy, in which the worker does not count for anything.

They have invented a very strange democracy for the worker – a democracy in which the worker does not even exist politically within society.

They speak about treating workers well and all sorts of things. In that situation, a worker’s child could die of hunger because he hasn’t been paid his benefits before the unconcerned glance of the government. His child could be left without learning without the government being concerned. But they continue to speak of rights for the worker that never exist for him.

His child could not be sure even of the right to school. His child could not be guaranteed even the right to a doctor. And thus despite the worker’s tremendous force, despite his sacrifices, despite his work for others in our national life, he neither governs nor counts for anything. He is not taken into account even when it comes to the payment of benefits.

Today, the University of Zambia Lecturers and Researchers Union is telling the authorities that its members are committed to ensuring that no strike occurs at the institution this year. They want harmony to prevail at the university. And they are hoping that the authorities will also do their part to ensure that these matters are resolved amicably, without resorting to strike action. But all they are being told is that there is no money.

The allocation for the University of Zambia this year is the same as it was last year. And we know very well that last year, the university was nowhere near meeting its obligations with that allocation. That being the case, how is that same allocation, without even taking into account price changes, going to be able to meet this year’s requirements?

One interesting thing with our government is that it doesn’t matter where the Minister of Finance or of education comes from, the treatment of the university is the same. Today we have a Minister of Finance who is a former University of Zambia lecturer, and economist who should be better placed to understand the problems of that institution. But there is no change in attitude as demonstrated by what has been allocated to the University of Zambia in this year’s budget.

But how do they intend to deal with this problem? We ask this question because this is not a problem that is going to go away by itself. Financial solutions have to be found. But there is nothing being done to assure anyone that the financial woes of the university will be addressed. And if this situation continues, we don’t see how there will be harmony at the university throughout this year. Soon, the patience of these humble workers will dry up; they will be overcome or weakened by financial problems.

And when this stage is reached, conflicts will start, strike actions will be the order of the day. But do we need to wait until that stage is reached; until we start having strike actions for the authorities to start addressing these problems? It is better to start addressing these problems now so that we don’t get into the election year with it and allow it to become a campaign issue. If this issue is not addressed soon, it is inevitably going to become an election campaign issue.

And the ones who will be at the loss, at the receiving end, will be those in government, those in the ruling party. The opposition will soon start feasting on this issue politically and use it against the government and the ruling party. Who can blame them for doing so? Who in the opposition in the world will not make this a campaign issue?

There is need for the government to start saving money by cutting down on unnecessary expenditure and by avoiding paying unjustified huge sums of money for services they can get at a fraction of that cost. In short, there is need for thriftiness. Thrift should be the guiding principle in our government expenditure. It should be made clear to all those who work for government that corruption and waste are very great crimes. The principle of diligence and frugality should be observed in everything. If this is done, the government will be able to pay all these workers who have not received their retirement benefits. Those in government should always bear in mind in all that they do that there are still so many retired workers whose lives have been ruined because they have not been paid their retirement dues.

The payment of retired workers should be given high priority in government expenditure. Not paying a retired person is tantamount to killing him after using them for most of their productive life. This is not the way to treat fellow human beings, to treat fellow citizens. A more fair, just and humane approach is needed.

Let us not forget that one of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognise a problem before it becomes an emergency, a crisis, a conflict. There is a crisis looming at the University of Zambia. Let us deal with it now before it gets out of control. Prevention is better than cure!

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