Support staff of Malawi’s judiciary system are holding a nationwide strike aimed at forcing the government to improve their working conditions. The strike, which started Monday, has paralyzed the courts, as protesters block lawyers, police and others from accessing the court buildings.
Court marshals, clerks and messengers say they will resume work only if the government addresses their grievances.
The striking court workers spend their time chanting, chatting and playing football and netball around the court premises.
Andy Haliwa, a spokesperson for the striking workers, told VOA the strike is a result of the government’s failure to honor worker concerns over terms of service that are revised every three years.
“The last revision was made in 2018. We anticipated a revision in 2021. And from 2021 and 2022 we have been working on a document to revise these conditions,” Haliwa said. “Yesterday in the morning we received a communication from the office of the registrar that the terms and conditions have been approved. But to our surprise what has been approved is contrary to what was submitted to the Judicial Service Commission.”
Haliwa said workers are demanding allowances for working overtime and outside their normal places of employment, among other things.
A similar strike lasted two months in 2015 when the workers demanded a 30% salary increase.
Haliwa said this time, the issue of a pay raise is out of the question because the government has said it has no money for that.
“We are OK with that because we understand the economic situation now,” he said. “But there are other allowances which we want, which we use while discharging our duties every day. What the ministry of finance has done, it has revised them, but the revision is not what we discussed.”
Efforts to reach government officials for a comment were not successful.
The strikers are using tree branches to barricade court buildings, denying access to judges, lawyers and other regular court users.
The industrial action led to indefinite suspension of more than 60 cases on Monday alone, including government corruption trials.
Human rights campaigners and legal experts said the strike is having a real effect on defendants.
Victor Mhango, executive director at the Center for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA), said his organization is feeling the impact.
“Most of the time we assist the prisoners, most of the poor don’t have lawyers to represent them,” Mhango said. “We have some cases in the courts, so this has actually affected us. And we are seeing a number of rights violations regarding the right of suspects.”
The president of the Malawi Law Society, Patrick Mpaka, told a local newspaper that the strike is a serious inconvenience to accessing justice.
Officials in the Malawi judiciary have been holding meetings with leaders of striking staff in an effort to persuade them to call off the strike. But the strikers said they will not resume work until their demands are met.