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Zimbabwe public unions plan walkout over wages

From Nkepile Mabuse, CNN
updated 6:41 PM EST, Wed January 18, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A union leader warns of a "total disruption of services"
  • Unions want a starting monthly wage of $538
  • The country's finance minister says public salaries eat up 60% of his budget

(CNN) -- Civil servants in Zimbabwe plan a one-day strike Thursday to protest low wages even as the government says the public payroll is too high.

Union leaders tried to meet with Public Service Minister Lucia Matibenga on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the issue, "but she kept us waiting for four hours," teachers union President Tendai Chikowore said.

"She has left us with no choice but to ask our members to stay away from work," said Chikowore, whose Zimbabwe Teachers' Association counts 44,000 members. "If they all heed this call, there will be a total disruption of services in what we see as the beginning of a series of protests for living wages."

The unions want an entry-level salary of $538 U.S. per month for government workers. But a decade of political instability and violence has left the country's economy in tatters, and Finance Minister Tendai Biti said government salaries are already eating up more than 60% of the country's budget, crowding out spending on infrastructure, health care and education.

A unity government was formed in 2009 by longtime President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, now prime minister. That government is struggling to lure investors back into the country. But with Mugabe urging new elections in 2012, his ZANU-PF party is likely to use a strike as an example that Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change is failing to solve the country's problems.

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