By Alick Ponje
The just ended strike by truck drivers in the country threatened to bring many sectors of our economy to their knees.
The long queues to gas stations in various parts of the country prompted Malawians to hark back to the fuel crisis of 2011 during the Bingu administration.
Only that this time, the fuel was not in short supply within the borders of this country. It was only the gas stations that temporarily went dry as tanker drivers grounded their vehicles.
“There is a total of 22 million [litres] and 32 million litres of petrol and diesel, respectively,” Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority said on Wednesday, a day before the drivers called off the strike.
The loads would apparently meet motorists’ fuel needs for 28 days, for petrol, and 54 days for diesel.
That would reportedly be the case if no single litre of the fuel crossed into the country from designated landing waterfronts.
Why the drivers were striking
The drivers were demanding a monthly salary of at least K140,000 each from their employers, the truck owners, and that government should prioritise giving businesses to local transporters.
They also wanted government to revise downwards passport renewal fees.
The majority of their demands have already been met.
On September 27, government gazetted regulations reducing the charge for a 48- page passport for international truck drivers by half from K120,000. Another regulation completely removed the Covid status certificate fee initially pegged at K30,000.
After the meeting during which an agreement had been reached between government representatives on one side and transporters and truck drivers on the other, Minister of Homeland Security Richard Chimwendo Banda indicated government will from now onwards be giving local transporters 86.7 percent of businesses.
“We have also formed a task force compri s i n g five Cabinet ministers and 10 members from the g r o u p ’ s association to be monitoring t h e agreements,” Chimwendo Banda said on Friday.
The real forces behind the drivers’ strike were the employers who could not meet their workers’ demands and pushed the blame to government.
The truck owners joined the strike being staged by those who were demanding more from them.
Transporters Association of Malawi— the body for truck owners — argued government needed to improve the haulage rates paid to its members so that they can pay the drivers’ demanded perks.
Officials had in the past indicated that Malawi has some of the most expensive transportation costs within the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) region.
On average, the cost for road transport is recommended to be not more than $7 per tonne in Sadc while Malawi registers more than $10 for the same quantity.
“Government has great interest in reducing the cost of transportation in the country. If we improve the railway sector, we will be able to reduce the average cost of transportation to less than $7 per tonne, which is the recommended cost in the region,” said late Sidik Mia during his time as minister of Transport.
So, while government has resolved to prioritise local haulers when transporting public goods, the cost will have to feature highly in the transactions.
In fact, previous reports indicated that local haulers did not have the capacity to transport the loads supplied to the National Oil Company of Malawi.
The transporters disputed the claim. Perhaps, now that government is prioritising them, their capacity will come under stern scrutiny.
The strike’s losers
For the just ended strike, there are losers who should have never been.
Some firms whose drivers are not even members of the drivers’ association were blocked from proceeding with their cargo by the protesters, losing their perishables in the process.
Other travellers simply suspended their trips after being blocked by the demonstrating truck drivers who were willing to stop at nothing to disrupt the country’s transport system.
It is important that long-lasting solutions are found in the matter.
While government has the obligation of ensuring the welfare of every Malawian is taken care of, there are private issues that should be resolved by private employers and their employees.
There are several lessons to learn from the recent strike.
Perhaps, like the late Mia intimated, rail transport system is the way to go to address some transport challenges that keep on resurfacing—both real and purported.