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Cries of Malawian truck drivers

FACE CHALLENGES—Truck drivers

RECEIVE LOADS OF CARGO —Ports such as this

By George Ntonya:

After two years of moving in circles to have their grievances addressed by the government, the country’s truck drivers—many of whom haul petroleum products and other imports from the ports of Beira and Dar es Salaam—have finally decided to involve President Lazarus Chakwera.

The truck drivers complain of poor working conditions. Many of them are recruited by word of mouth. They do not have proper contracts. Their salaries are low.

Yet, they take care of property worth millions of Kwacha. Whenever the truck is involved in an accident, some owners recover part of the maintenance costs from the driver’s salary and subsistence allowances.

“When a head-lamp gets broken after hitting an animal on the road, for example, the truck owner deducts some money from the allowance. The same applies if thieves steal some fertiliser from the truck while in transit,” Hamis Imedi Amasi said in an interview in Lilongwe.

Amasi, 42, has been a truck driver since 2013. In June 2015, he was involved in a road accident in Mozambique. He was evacuated back home and spent months in hospital, having sustained head injuries.

“What surprised me was that I was told to pay K2.7 million to the company I was working for as compensation in respect of the money the company had spent on repairing the truck.

“Life has been tough for me because they deducted money from my monthly salary and allowances until mid-2020 when the K2.7 million was fully recovered,” Amasi said.

Foreign “investors” and Malawians of Asian descent dominate the transport sector, players say.

According to Professional Drivers Union of Malawi (Produm) Secretary General Mphatso Molleni, Malawi is losing a lot of forex because of its preference for foreign transport operators when awarding contracts.

Many of the foreign operators, he said, externalise all their earnings. Some of them have more than one company. They work as a cartel, rendering indigenous truck operators as peripheral subcontractors.

An indigenous truck owner who did not want to be named concurred with Molleni that the government could save a lot of forex if it had put in place deliberate policies to empower indigenous transport operators.

“Many people say that commodity prices are higher in our country compared to other countries in the region because our transport charges are high. This is not entirely true,” the local transport operator said.

“The issue is that there are a lot of middlemen who cart home huge commissions.”

Government contracting entities are reportedly to blame for this. Whenever there is a contract to carry goods such as fuel or fertiliser for the government-sponsored subsidy programme, for example, the cartels are said to have an edge over indigenous operators because they have the muscle to palm-oil officials responsible for awarding the contracts.

“If the government cut out the dobadobas (middlemen), transport costs could come down and the government could save a lot of money,” the operator said.

Recently, state-owned National Oil Company of Malawi (Nocma) ignited debate that serves as evidence that underhand dealings really take place in the supply chain.

Coincidentally, the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) arrested former minister of Energy Newton Kambala, President Lazarus Chakwera’s aide Chris Chaima Banda and Alliance for Democracy president Enock Chihana over allegations of attempted corrupt dealings at Nocma.

On the other hand, Attorney General Thabo Chakaka Nyirenda a few days ago, debarred some companies owned by Malawians of Asian descent also on allegations of corrupt practices.

Even after staging a series of strikes, resulting at one point in an interruption of fuel supply in the country, the truck drivers seem to have been fed half-truths each time they met with government officials to discuss their grievances.

“It is against this background that we now write to the President, through your good office, seeking an opportunity for a roundtable audience with the State President so that our grievances are brought to his direct attention,” a letter from Produm delivered to the Secretary to the President and Cabinet Zangazanga Chikhosi reads.

It is almost certain that the issues will not come to a logical conclusion any time soon. The truck drivers will have to endure the pain of waiting.

“I have worked as a truck driver for 11 years but I have nothing to show for it. I don’t even have a hut to call home. I am struggling to send my child to school,” Samuel Kaisa said in Lilongwe.

All the cross-border truck drivers interviewed also complained about mistreatment when they travel to the ports to carry goods.

“Generally, we take long to load, yet our subsistence allowance is not dependent on the number of days we stay there,” Joseph Balakasi, a tanker driver, said in an interview at a truck park in Beira, Mozambique.

“Many of us have been here for over a month waiting for a release order and whenever we ask for explanations for our delay, we don’t get convincing answers,” Balakasi said.

Sometimes the tanker drivers stay in Beira up to three months without loading the fuel. Reasons for this vary.

At the time of my visit to Beira in October 2021, Lawrence Ng’omba, another tanker driver, had been there for three months already. He did not know the day of his departure, either.

“I am going to clock up four months here in Beira shortly,” he said.

Elias Manda, another tanker driver, did not mince words regarding alleged mistreatment in Mozambique.

“When we go to the port to load fuel, some customs officers ask for money for us to be able to collect the release order,” he said. “I have been driving a tanker for almost 15 years and I have been paying the money from my allowances.”

The release order is a document or set of documents which the truck drivers use as confirmation that they have been cleared to carry the goods.

“Instead of spending our subsistence allowance on food, we give part of the money to traffic police officers to avoid being delayed,” Alfred Mkwinja, who was on his way to offload tobacco in Beira, said at a place called Mazoe.

According to him, the truck drivers keep wads of Meticais—the Mozambican currency—“to buy their way” from traffic police officers, even in cases where an offence has not been committed.

“If I don’t pay up when an officer asks for money, that police officer may look for any defect on the truck so that I pay an exorbitant fine.”

This is a common practice between Calomue Border Post and Tete, the drivers claimed.

“When they tell you to give them money, you just have to oblige; otherwise, they can delay you unnecessarily,” Stan Ndekha added.

The Mozambican Embassy in Lilongwe did not respond to such allegations when contacted.

“Petroleum Importers Limited and the government are aware of these issues. They should investigate and find solutions to the problem,” Manda said.

Beira port is situated some 1,194 kilometres (km) from Lilongwe and 846km from Blantyre. Usually, it takes two days for the truck drivers to cover the distance. Throughout the journey, the truck drivers spend nights in their trucks.

They cook their own food in many instances. They are their own guards at night.

“We make sure that we have everything to be able to prepare our own food because sometimes we have a breakdown at a place which is far from restaurants or houses,” Ali Majawa, who sometimes commutes between Beira and Lilongwe thrice in a month, said in an interview at a place called Inchope.

Until mid-2021, the tanker drivers had to find parking space on their own while waiting for their turn to load at the port.

Now there is an official truck park, situated about 15km from the port. But the drivers are not happy with its status.

There is an open pit latrine, made of a concrete ring and blocks with a corrugated iron sheet serving as a door. The park is partly fenced and too small for the tankers. There are no floodlights, either.

“We encounter snakes here,” Joseph Balakasi lamented. “We draw water from a shallow well.”

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