- Angry trade unionists brought the Guinean capital Conakry to a standstill today, the first of a five-day general strike called to wrest longstanding demands for a four-fold rise in wages and pensions. The demands are based on years of high inflation, effectively reducing Guinean workers' purchase power.
Two of the West African nation's most powerful unions, the National Confederation of Guinean Workers (CNTG), and the Guinean Workers Trade Union (USTG), called the strike action after months of talks broke down. The two trade unions between them boast around 80,000 workers, it is estimated.
There was little traffic on the streets of Conakry as most taxis and minibuses remained at home, while shops and businesses stayed closed and government workers largely deserted offices.
The Guinean government itself on Sunday ordered the closure until further notice of all educational institutions across the country, including schools and universities. "The government realised by last night that it was battling a lost cause," a trade union member told the UN media 'IRIN' today, a day after negotiations broke down.
Daily life has become tougher and tougher in past years for the average Guinean. Rice, the staple food for the West African nation's eight million people, almost doubled between January 2004 and November 2005, with the free-market price of a 50 kg bag of rice increasing from 50,000 francs to about 85,000 francs. Today a bag costs a whopping 100,000 Guinean francs or US$ 22, which equates to more than half the average monthly salary of a civil servant.
As the Guinea franc tumbles against the dollar on a near day by day basis, petrol prices have also risen sharply in recent months fuelling inflation and adding to Guinean's woes.
Inflation, which was running at just below 28 percent in 2003, up from single digits two years earlier, was at over 30 percent in the second term of 2005, according to the Conakry Economy and Finance Ministry.
Guinean Employment Minister Ibrahima Keira has threatened action against government workers who fail to turn up for work without a legitimate reason. But leading trade unionist Louis Mbemba Souma, Secretary-General of the Teachers' Union, told 'IRIN' today that "We are determined to carry on this strike."
"For too long we've been taken for a ride," Mr Souma said. "This time, if even it takes us months, we will pursue and get what we demand from this government," the trade unionist added.
As the stoppage bit, stalls remained empty at Conakry's main Madina Market while there was little activity at the government-run Donka hospital in town. "We are observing the strike by giving limited services," one medical officer said. "But if within the next few days the impasse is not broken, we will have little choice but to close that down as well."
The decision is controversial, also among the striking workers. "I know that as professionals we shouldn't, but ... enough is enough," the medical officer said.
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