Union sends warning with one-day strike

Mali’s largest union sent a shot across the government’s bows on Monday by making good on a promise to hold a 24-hour strike, describing it as a “warning” and vowing to press on until its demands were met.

“We got to this point because the government refused even to consider our list of grievances,” the National Union of Malian Workers’ (UNTM) secretary general Siaka Diakite told IRIN.

The strike, which by organisers’ estimates affected 90 to 95 per cent of the country, paralysed much of the administration although basic services continued in the health, energy and telecommunications sectors.

Negotiations between the government and the UNTM, which represents 80 per cent of the country’s civil servants, broke down late last week, paving the way for the stoppage that had been threatened since the beginning of the month.

A reconciliation commission consisting of religious leaders and retired civil servants proved unable to bridge the gap on four outstanding issues from a 14-point list of grievances delivered to the government last May.

The main sticking points are financial, as might be expected in one of the world’s poorest nations.

According to the World Bank, close to 70 per cent of the country’s population earns less than a dollar a day and, in its annual Human Development Report released earlier this month, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) ranked Mali the world’s fourth poorest nation, ahead of only Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone and Niger.

The government, for its part, cites this same poverty as grounds for refusing the UNTM’s call for a 37 per cent increase in the minimum wage. It claims that international demands for cuts in government spending, the soaring price of petrol and ongoing drought are just some of the factors that make the terms impossible to meet.

Diakite, for his part, insisted that the increase was not unreasonable, as it would bring the minimum monthly wage up to the cost of a sack of rice.

“In this country, everything’s going up but salaries,” said a union member who declined to give her name.

Even in a normal year, Mali is an arid country where a quarter of the children under the age of five are malnourished. Last year’s devastating plague of locusts and poor rains has caused the price of basic foodstuffs to skyrocket, making it that much harder for this nation of 12 million to feed itself.

But Mahamadou Belem, who is a member of the country’s second largest union, said he did not support the strike. According to him, the labour stoppage comes at a bad time, given the country’s current problems.

For the government, the end of today’s strike may not mean its troubles are over. The UNTM has said it will evaluate the strike’s impact and decide where to go from there.