Civil servants are not paid well in Zimbabwe, they have been falling behind the private sector since the introduction of the multi-currency regime, and there is general agreement that they deserve a better deal.
It is intolerable that the people who teach our children, look after us when we are sick, guard our streets against criminals and provide many other services should be paid so little when they do so much
Yesterday the Zanu-PF Politburo resolved that all civil servants be paid above the poverty datum line. And that is a measurable goal, easy to monitor and provides a good independent yardstick.
But, and this is the big but, it cannot be achieved in one jump. Our country, reeling as it does from sanctions-induced hardships is simply not rich enough to find that sort of money.
Even in the best companies in the private sector, with their significantly higher pay scales, those at the bottom of the ladder are not paid above the poverty datum line, although admittedly they are paid more than the bottom rungs of the civil service.
The problem is that Government expenditure, at least on recurrent expenditure such as salaries, must not be more than Government revenue from taxes. You can borrow for capital budgets; you can as is already being mooted as a principle for much of the needed State capital work use the build-operate-transfer system. But no one is ever going to lend a Government money to meet a payroll. That has to come out of income.
And this is where Government needs to think outside the box. Civil service salaries were higher than the PDL before the sanctions regime, we have to get them back there, and Zanu-PF should be hailed for daring to take the bull by the horns.
What can be done, and what must be done, is to see significant progress towards this goal every year, with civil service salaries rising faster than inflation and the progress towards the final goal being measured precisely every year.
This is not impossible. The economy is growing and the tax system ensures that since the Government’s take is roughly a fixed percentage of the total national income that growth translates into higher tax revenue without having to raise tax rates or impose new taxes. Since we are now moving into slower population growth rates, and because modern technologies allow everyone, including civil servants, to be more productive we do not have to increase numbers. So with more money each year divided among the same number of people, we can ensure automatically some increases.
But this will not be enough.
The other thing we must do is establish priorities for how we spend our taxes, and salaries have to remain the highest priority. There are those who continue to claim that the bulk of taxes should be spent on “services”, not salaries.
But we have argued before, and we argue now, that almost all the services the Government provides, and should provide, are having the correctly qualified people doing things.
The education ministries, for example, offer an essential service.
They put a qualified teacher or lecturer in front of a class of our children. The main expense is the salary of the teacher.
The salary is the cost of the service. Parents, or aid agencies, can provide books and chalk. The Government needs to pay the teacher.
The health sector is another case. While some equipment is needed the main service is having a qualified health professional seeing a sick person. Again that is a salary. Many of us can afford some payment towards drugs or dressings, but the salary of a doctor or nurse is largely going to be paid from taxes.
And it is like this throughout the civil service and the uniformed services. The service is the trained person, by and large. And so there is nothing wrong in making sure that the bulk of our taxes, and the rising tax revenue from the growing economy, go on salaries.
So while we hope that salaries will increase faster than they have in the last few years, and that salaries will remain a very high priority when allocating spending, we have to acknowledge that it may take a few years to comfortably tie civil service salaries to the PDL. But Zanu-PF, as the party that informs Government, must keep faith with its voters and must insist that everything possible is done to push salaries further faster; and it must keep a sharp eye on what is done and must demand that the gap between what is happening now, and what should be happening, is seen to narrow swiftly.