More than 30 people have been injured as police opened fire on demonstrators during a public sector strike action in former Swaziland. The General Secretary of the National Public Service and Allied Workers Union (NAPSAWU), shot with live ammunition, was among those injured. The violence comes amid a broader pattern of curtailment of democratic freedoms in the country. Trade unions representing civil servants are preparing for “a major offensive” even as court hearings will soon commence on a government plea against their strike which began on September 23.
Police brutality against demonstrations
On September 25, two days after the strike began, the government unleashed its police forces against a demonstration in the capital city of Mbabane, injuring at least 15 civil servants with rubber bullets. However, the workers refused to be cowed down and soon, work at the revenue collection department, the central transport administration, immigration offices and other government departments was seriously affected.
Government-controlled newspapers carried editorials insinuating that the demand for pay rise was only a cover for an agitation whose primary motive was regime change – a criminal offense to be dealt under Supression of Terrorism Act. This claim was dismissed outright by the unions.
On October 2, 17 demonstrators were injured when riot police attacked a demonstration of thousands of striking civil servants in Swaziland’s commercial hub of Manzini. The police used fired live bullets, tear gas and rubber bullets at the protesters.
“One of the workers was so badly injured after her hand was pierced by a rubber bullet that there are fears that she may be disabled,” the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), which is banned by Swaziland’s monarchical government for its pro-democracy activism, said in a statement.
Public servants demand compensation for rising prices
The strike was called by the Public Servants Associations (PSAs) which comprises the NAPSAWU, the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) and the Swaziland National Association of Government Accounting Personnel (SNAGAP) among others. The SNAT has a membership of 14,000 of the roughly 15,000 teachers employed in government schools and colleges while the SNAGAP counts as its members 500 of the roughly 800 government accountants.
While the Swaziland Nurses Association (SNA) is also a part of the PSAs, its members were prohibited from participating in the strike action on the grounds that their profession is categorized under “essential services”.
The unions are demanding a CoLA of 7.85% to compensate for the loss of real earnings due to rising prices since 2016, which was when the last CoLA was paid. The government has made a counter-offer of 3% for the year 2020-21, provided the condition of the economy improves and the PSAs call off the strike. The unions, on the other hand, are unwilling to engage on the matter of 2020-21 right now, when the CoLA for the current year and the past two years has not yet been paid.
The authorities claim that the strikes are political
The strike was originally scheduled to begin on January 27, but was interdicted after the government claimed in court that the motives behind the industrial action were political.
After a six months-long hearing, the court, in its verdict in July, declared that the demands behind the strike action are “legitimate” and not of a “purely political nature.” It gave a go-ahead for the unions to file fresh strike notices.
Having moved to court again on October 1, the attorney general reportedly argued this time that the strike was against the “national interest” and damaged the economy. In his application to the court, the labor minister cited the violent clashes in which civil servants were injured by police firing as one of the reasons for the government to demand an interdiction.
Eswatini is among the worst countries in respect for labour rights
It is a common practice for police in plain clothes to merge with the workers in their demonstrations and provoke clashes, which is then used by the police as an excuse to shoot and by the government to get the court to interdict strikes.
As per Section 89 of the Industrial Relations Act of Swaziland – which is among the worst ranked countries in respect for labor rights – when the labor minister makes such an application, “the strike action stops [first, and] the merits of his case are heard thereafter,” he explained.
Accordingly, the court has admitted the government’s case. The hearing will begin on October 17. Granting an interim interdict to the government, the court, whose top jurists are also appointed by the king, prohibited the unions from continuing strike action until it decides on the final verdict.
Calling on its members to report back to work on October 4, the PSAs said “our comrades are requested to [temporarily] retreat”, as the leadership is “planning for another major offensive.”