Staff strikes have cost the Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority (Tazara) over USD 4 million (about 6bn/-) since June 2010. Conrad Simuchile, the authority’s head of public relations said in an exclusive interview with this paper in Dar es Salaam yesterday that every single day trains have been grounded has meant around USD 100,000 (150m/-) in lost business.
“Workers have been laying down tools almost every month. This has had a nasty impact on productivity,” he said, adding: “These strikes are now too frequent for comfort. They have had a disastrous effect on our operations, particularly in terms of lost revenue.”
Simuchile explained that the management has done the most it could since the beginning of this financial year (in July last year) to ensure the stoppages end and no new ones take place, but to little avail.
He said at yesterday’s exchange rate, the USD 4m loss in financial year 2010/2011 “translates into an astounding 6 billion/- in the space of a little over ten months, all due to unnecessary, recurring industrial action”.
Operational inefficiencies and payment transfer problems are blamed for the recent standoff between Tazara staff and their management, which is accused of gross mismanagement resulting in failure to honour salary payments.
But the management insists that the problems have nothing to do with availability of money, since money is not the problem, with Simuchile arguing: “Tazara makes money, (it) has a lot of business,” and adding that the strikes are “a consequence of forces outside the company’s operational sphere”.
“Our longest-serving employees understand that business is not the problem” he said in a press statement issued on Wednesday, adding that previous strikes were staged “under a different set of circumstances”.
The statement quoted the management as saying the authority has begun resolving some of the problems that nearly set off another round of strikes only days ago.
It said new arrangements have been made under which “local cash flow isn’t wholly dependent on revenue collection in Zambia, ensuring that if ever there is any delay in transferring funds to Tazara’s Dar es Salaam headquarters, the railroad carrier gets access to short-term financing from a local financial institution”.
Simuchile called the transfer problem “unavoidable”, saying that was because Zambia is the largest revenue collection point for the carrier and the money has to be consequently moved to the Dar es Salaam headquarters “before it is processed and recapitalised”.
He said all of Tazara’s 2,800 employees have been received their salaries for last month “and salaries for May will be issued on schedule, by the end of the month”.
The statement said the management “understands that it cannot break this vicious cycle of accusations and strikes without the cooperation of its employees”.
“We need the support of everybody,” it said, adding that workers and management would have to “find common ground to move the railways outfit forward”.
Tazara’s statement was a response to recent calls from employees to the governments of Tanzania and Zambia to pressure the carrier to pay their salaries promptly.
The workers argued that the carrier was financially insecure and not in a position to meet its payroll obligations, adding in a statement: “If (Tazara) cannot buy fuel for its passenger trains, how can they pay us?”
In its heyday, Tazara operated a fleet of passenger and cargo trains on the 1,860-kilometre Chinese built line once fondly referred to as the “Great Uhuru Railway”. It is now however reeling under the weight of operational problems.
The railway’s construction then stood as the largest single project ever undertaken jointly by Tanzania and Zambia and the largest single economic assistance project ever financed by the Chinese government.
Meanwhile, Tazara workers in Mbeya have been on strike for three consecutive days to press for payment of their salaries. This has prompted intervention by top officials of the Tanzania Railway Workers Union (TRAWU), with deputy chairman Mussa Kalala telling the workers that they (the union) met Transport minister Omari Nundu recently “and all your claims and demands were presented to him”.
He said the union has given the minister until today to respond to their grievances, including those involving former Tazara employees.