Malawi's airports closed because of wage strike

BY: Enoch Darfah Frimpong

All airports in Malawi have been forced to shut down following a wage strike by civil servants.

Both domestic and international flights were cancelled, says the BBC's Raphael Tenthani in the main city, Blantyre.

The indefinite strike, affecting nearly all government departments, is the biggest since Joyce Banda became president last year.

Mrs Banda, who has not yet commented on the strike, is scheduled to fly to Equatorial Guinea on Thursday.

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[The devaluation of the currency] seems to be stimulating the production of exports and import substitutes while restraining demand for imports”

Tsidi TsikataIMF chief

It is unclear whether she will be able to make the trip, as Malawi's two international airports, in Blantyre and Lilongwe, are closed, our reporter says.

Passengers flying on South African Airways (SAA), Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines were stranded on Wednesday, he adds.

Most of Malawi's estimated 120,000 civil servants - including teachers and immigration officers - are on strike demanding wage increases to counter the rising cost of living, our correspondent says.

Workers complain that since the government devalued the local currency, the kwacha, by 49% in May, their incomes have been badly affected, he says.

On Thursday, Finance Minister Ken Lipenga said the government could not afford to increase wage costs, Reuters news agency reports.

'Anti-Banda slogans'

Trade unions are demanding a 65% wage increase, about double the inflation rate, it reports.

"Currently our wage bill is 97 billion kwacha ($277 million), and if we agree to their demands, this will almost triple to 276 billion kwacha, which is equivalent to the whole national budget," Mr Lipenga was quoted as saying.

The strike started last week, but it has since escalated, with state schools also affected, our reporter says.

Nurses and doctors have also threatened to join the strike.

In Blantyre on Thursday, about 300 pupils from a state school marched to a private school, run by the Joyce Banda Foundation, to demand that they join the strike, our reporter says.

Workers also held protests, chanting anti-government slogans such as "Joyce Banda, in 2014 you are not going to see my vote", he adds.

It will be the first election Mrs Banda will contest since she took power following the unexpected death of her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, in April 2012.

The latter part of Mr Mutharika's rule was marred by widespread protests about the rising cost of living and fuel shortages.

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation ended a visit to Malawi on Tuesday, Reuters reports.

Its Malawi chief, Tsidi Tsikata, said there were "encouraging signs" that the economy was improving, it reports.

The devaluation of the currency "seems to be stimulating the production of exports and import substitutes while restraining demand for imports," Mr Tsikata was quoted as saying.