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Burundian civil servants strike for pay increase, 2007
In May 2007, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced a 34 percent salary increase for all civil servants in Burundi. This increase, which the government was to implement in July 2007, followed a year after the government had more than doubled the salaries of military and security personnel. Despite President Nkurunziza’s promise, the International Monetary Fund, which provided much of the international aid to Burundi, urged against the salary increase. Citing lack of funds, by September 2007 the government had still not implemented the 34 percent increase while Nkurunziza’s government continued to increase fees and taxes.
Due to the government’s lack of action or explanation in setting up the promised increase, in September the Confederation of Burundi Labor Unions (COSYBU), which was a coalition of 25 unions and represented 70 percent of Burundi’s civil servants at the time, wrote a letter to the president demanding a deadline for the implementation pay increase. COSYBU also wanted the increase to be retroactive to July when the civil servants’ salaries were supposed to be raised. A few weeks later the finance minister pushed the implementation date back to January 2008 and other officials promised retroactive payments as well.
When the government put the increase on hold altogether in late October, COSYBU threatened to begin an indefinite strike until the government fulfilled its salary increment promise. Later, the finance minister restated the January 2008 date for the beginning of the increase, but said it would not be retroactive to July despite previous promises. The government claimed that the increase was heavily reliant on donations from sources of international aid from sources like the International Monetary Fund; however, these donors had refused to send aid to Burundi citing poor governance and poor economic choices such as the purchasing of a new presidential jet.
Despite COSYBU’s threat to begin an indefinite strike, the confederation delayed calling such an action until President Nkurunziza had replaced his cabinet. However, when the new cabinet first met in November, the ministers still did not to address the issue of a 34 percent salary increase for civil servants. At the end of November COSYBU partnered with the Confederation of Free Unions of Burundi (CSB) and called for a three-day strike to begin on Monday December 3, 2007. Combined, COSYBU and the smaller CSB represented approximately 41,000 civil servants. In addition to the implementation of the salary increase, the two confederations also wanted the government review civil servants’ statutes and to set up a framework for dialogue between the government and civil servants.
In the weekend before the civil servants were to begin their strike the civil service minister and the government as a whole made announcements on national radio and television urging civil servants not to strike. Despite these urgings, the two confederations confirmed their plan to strike and the union of the workers at the University of Burundi also decided to join the action even though they had not been included in the original promise for wage increases.
On December 3, between 85 and 90 percent of civil servants from around the country went on strike. The strikers included primary school teachers, who made up two thirds of government workers, administrative workers and all other civil servants who were not considered “essential” workers. In response, the government deemed the strike illegal. President Nkurunziza asked workers to suspend their strike and promised to implement the wage increase when the country’s finances improved. Nonetheless, the civil servants continued to demand retroactive implementation of the salary increase and open dialogue with the government on the issue.
On the second day of the strike the government arrested four union representatives from the Burundi Teachers Union that represented the striking primary school teachers. The strike leaders demanded that the government release the arrested union representatives and threatened to extend the strike if they were not released. Other union leaders had to go into hiding to avoid arrests. Although the strike was supposed to end after Wednesday December 5, COSYBU and CSB extended the strike by two days because of the arrests.
The government would still not enter into talks with the confederation leaders even though that same week the government had increased pay for special judicial workers, who were not part of the strike. Despite the release of the imprisoned union representatives, on December 7 the civil servant leaders announced that the strike would continue indefinitely until the government began negotiations with the labor leaders. This announcement followed the decision of 5,000 nurses and other health workers to join the strike.
As the civil servants continued their 90 percent participation in the strike, only essential workers in the ministry of public health remained at work. All through the next week civil servants remained on strike and hospitals began to suffer because of the striking nurses.
After two weeks of strikes, the government began negotiations with COSYBU and CSB leaders. With the beginning of open negotiations, the civil servants ended their strike and returned to work on Monday December 17. That week Burundi’s Vice President set up a commission for further negotiations with civil servant leaders. With the help of a mediator in negotiations, the government granted the 34% salary increase to the civil servants. It is not clear from sources if the civil servants' statutes were reviewed.