- Zambia's first general strike in 16 years yesterday went ahead peacefully, despite earlier police threats. Union leaders termed the strike over tax hikes and frozen wages a success and foresee further strike action if the Lusaka government continues to refuse negotiations.
An estimated five thousand members of the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and the Federation of Free Trade Unions in Zambia (FFTUZ) yesterday marched peacefully to parliament, protesting new government policies affecting workers.
Lusaka police in the last moment lifted the ban on the march, which trade union leaders had said they would ignore, and confrontations were thus avoided. At the parliament, trade unions handed over a petition against the announced tax hikes and the government decision to freeze wages.
Union leaders further assessed that up to 90 percent of Zambian workers had heeded the call for a national general strike. ZCTU thus described the labour actions as "successful".
It however remained to see whether the Zambian parliament would follow the unions' petition to reject the government's controversial 2004 budget. So far, President Levy Mwanawasa and his government have refused to negotiate the tax hike and the wage freeze with trade unions - one of the principal demands of the striking masses.
Unions leaders therefore have now threatened to continue striking if the Lusaka government refused to back down. ZCTU president Leonard Hikaumba yesterday even warned that unions were considering to stage an indefinite stayaway if parliament approved the current draft of the 2004 budget. If a revised budget is not presented by April, indefinite strike action could be the result, union leaders said.
Zambian trade unions hold that the wage freeze proposed by the government is illegal, referring to a 1998 court decision. Further, the proposed increase of personal income tax from 30 to 40 percent would lay a disproportionately large burden on workers.
The controversial cuts in the 2004 budget come as a consequence of budgetary control demands made by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). If the Zambian government doesn't keep the wage bill within 8.1 percent of GDP, conditional IMF loans will not be disbursed. Last year, the Fund froze its lending to Zambia following a higher than planned budget deficit.
Union leaders earlier this week called on the Zambian government to cut spending on issues they consider less important to meet the IMF's budget demands, in particular naming President Mwanawasa's travel budget. Reacting to these calls, the Zambian President yesterday announced he had decided to cut his domestic and foreign travel budget from US$ 6 million to US$ 3.6 million, thus taking part in the necessary sacrifices.
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