GUINEA-BISSAU: Government workers strike for back pay

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Hundreds of public sector workers across Guinea-Bissau, including nurses, doctors and civil servants, are striking over salary arrears, leaving basic services running at minimum capacity.

The National Union of Guinea-Bissauan Workers (UNTG) declared the three-day strike 7 October.

“The strike has been followed by 95 percent of public sector workers across the country,” said Laureano Pereira da Costa, UNTG spokesperson.

Taxi and truck drivers joined the three-day strike, he said, demanding that transport police cease routinely stopping vehicles to extract bribes on major roads.

Civil servants across the government have not been paid in three months, according to Zubaida Rasul, senior political affairs officer at the UN Peacebuilding Support Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNOGBIS). The government paid one month of back-pay at the end of September but three months’ salary is owed, while security forces were not paid at all in September, she said.

In addition to salary, workers are demanding transport stipends to keep up with the increased cost of living. Medical staff are demanding a government-promised stipend for their efforts to tackle a cholera epidemic that has swept across the country, and which the government claims it is unable to control.

Staff at the centre of epidemiology, which is tasked with tracing the roots of the epidemic, no longer expect to be paid regularly, Augostino Betunda, joint director of services told IRIN.

Civil servants in several ministries, including fisheries, agriculture and health, regularly face salary arrears in Guinea Bissau, said Rui Alfonso Sami, director of rural growth at the Ministry of Agriculture.

In response to the strike Prime Minister Carlos Correia stated in a press release, "Workers have the obligation to ensure minimum services required under the law," adding strikers’ salaries will be docked for the duration of the strike.

Prime Minister Correia’s government was sworn in in August 2008, stressing an intention to organise national elections in November, restore public order and pay regular wages.

No capacity

Ministries across the Guinea-Bissau government spend the bulk of their revenue on meeting salary payments, and have little to none left over to build capacity, develop policies or run programmes, the Agriculture Ministry’s Sami told IRIN.

With hefty debt repayments to the World Bank and African Development Bank, “the government is working hard to dig itself out of an external debt hole, which leaves it insufficient funds to regularly meet salaries”, said Rasul of UNOGBIS.

Representatives from international donors and financial institutions are meeting with the government to discuss solutions to the current salary crisis.