Civil servants work extremely hard. They are the backbone of Uganda, but are paid poorly. Their work is considered essential, but the pay does not reflect that category.
By Opiyo Oloya
I will call her Deborah. That is not her real name. She is a hardworking teacher. She is also a successful mother of four. Her children are well educated. A daughter is working and has a family with two young children. Another daughter just finished law school but does not have the funds to attend the Law Development Centre at Makerere.
She is currently unemployed. The youngest son also has a marketable degree. He, too, is unemployed at the moment. The firstborn died three years ago. He was knocked dead by a speeding car. He left behind a widow and three young children. Deborah never took hand-outs or wanted them. But things have changed. The coronavirus has only intensified her financial woes.
Right now she is drowning in various loans owed to different financial institutions. Her meager teacher's salary goes to service the loans. Whatever small amount is left goes toward rent, food, and other basic necessities. She is forced to return to the banks for "top-ups" but even these are becoming difficult to get. In any case, she is digging herself deeper into debt than before. "Mr Opiyo Oloya, we the teachers in Uganda are dying a so-called natural death, but, in actual sense, it is poverty killing us and our families," she wrote. It is a vicious cycle with no end in sight.
But Deborah's story is not isolated. I receive emails from many hardworking Uganda professionals — teachers, engineers, nurses, doctors — who should be making a decent if austere living. But who are not able to make ends meet even as they try harder.
A social worker in Luwero sounded more desperate. His urgent message read, "I am almost starving with my family! I kindly request you for any amount of money to buy foodstuffs." Meanwhile, in a recent email to me, an experienced doctor who worked in Kagadi district and should be considering retirement wrote: "Unless and until remuneration for civil servants is adequate, there will be no value for money."
Indeed, that is one big part of the problem. Civil servants work extremely hard. They are the backbone of Uganda, but are paid poorly. Their work is considered essential, but the pay does not reflect that category. Of course, it does no good when one sector gets better pay while another stagnates. Instead many civil servants are forced to survive through other means — having a small shamba or a business on the side.
With COVID-19 and the follow-up lockdown, these folks are living from paycheque to paycheque, and no longer able to stay afloat. Their survival lifeline which is plugged in the informal economy is cut off. People cannot run to the village to get food as they normally would. Those who depend on food from upcountry shambas are reduced to begging just to be able to put something on the table.
As a temporary stop-gap measure, the Government should offer a one-time pay top-up to teachers, doctors, civil servants. It may be a drop in the bucket, but every drop helps somewhat with immediate needs.
Long term, though, the Government should make good on promises made last September when the talk was about pay increases for teachers, civil servants and others.
The directive issued from the President's office to health minister Jane Ruth Aceng in September 2019 was to raise the salary of over 60,000 civil servants in the healthcare field to "desirable levels". Since then these talks have cooled and not much has been said except to warn that there is likely no pay increase in the 2021 financial year. Natural disasters including the invasion of locusts are being blamed for the delay in pay rises. However, with planning the pay rises should still take place.
The other side of the story, like Deborah's, cries out for a collective of civil service to use the power of numbers to negotiate better loans from banks, organise healthcare and dental insurances and the list goes on. In many developed economies, professional associations and workers unions organise on behalf of the members.
Here in the Province of Ontario, for example, I am a member of the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan and the Ontario Teachers Insurance Plan (OTIP). The teachers' pension plan is one of the richest in the world with assets topping $200b for teachers in the province of Ontario. Meanwhile, my car and house insurances are negotiated by the teachers' insurance plan. Collectively, we win because of the power of numbers.
But in the context of Uganda, professional associations do not have the clout that the Government has. When the Government speaks, banks pay attention. The role of spearheading a collective that benefits, supports and ensures the welfare of teachers and civil servants should, therefore, fall under a government agency. As a collective, for monthly fees, members can negotiate healthcare insurance rates, better bank loans and other amenities that allow civil servants to keep their heads above water in a fast-changing world.
For Deborah, unfortunately, the immediate challenge is to feed her family. How she will do that depends on the grace of God and hope of a better tomorrow. That is unless the Government can step in to help - now.