Zimbabwe teachers strike for pay as inflation bites

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HARARE, Oct 2 (Reuters) Zimbabwean teachers have gone on strike to press demands for huge wage increases as the southern African country battles with the fastest rising consumer prices in the world.

Critics say President Robert Mugabe has plunged the southern African state deeper into economic crisis by ordering public institutions and private businesses to stop raising wages and prices without official authority to tame rampaging inflation.

Today, unions representing Zimbabwe's primary and high school teachers said thousands of their members across the country had gone on strike on Monday over ''scandalously'' low salaries -- the latest demonstration of a wider economic crisis.

''Officially our strike began yesterday, but many teachers have not been teaching for a week or so and those turning up are doing so to supervise children at the playgrounds,'' said an official with the Zimbabwe Teachers' Association (ZIMTA).

''We are talking to the authorities over our grievances and our position is that we will not return to work until those issues are addressed,'' he said.

The union which represents about two thirds of Zimbabwe's 90,000 teachers wants the government to raise teachers' salaries to at least Z.7 million a month, which consumer rights groups say is the minimum wage above the poverty datum line.

Teachers currently earn 100 US dollars at the official rate and 6 US dollars at the black market rate).

Although the unions are refusing to be drawn into details of their wage negotiations, local media reports say the teachers have rejected the government's offer to raise their pay to 7.9 million dollars.

''We have been forced into this (strike) action because our employers are moving very slowly on the issue while many of our members can hardly afford fares to go to work on their monthly pay,'' said the ZIMTA official, who declined to be named.

''For professionals, the pay is scandalously low,'' he said.

Zimbabwe government officials were not immediately available for comment on Tuesday. But Zimbabwe state radio quoted Mugabe as urging his officials to resolve the strike dispute so that end of year examinations will not be affected.

The government's statistics agency says that inflation eased from a record 7,634 per cent to about 6,600 per cent in August after a controversial price freeze ordered by Mugabe.

But the inflation figure still remains the world's highest, and analysts say the economy is sinking deeper into trouble.

Zimbabwe is also grappling with shortages of basic foodstuffs, fuel and foreign currency after seven years of economic recession many blame on Mugabe.

Mugabe, Zimbabwe's ruler since independence from Britain in 1980, denies the allegations and accuses Western powers of sabotaging Zimbabwe's economy to try to oust him as punishment for his seizure of white-owned farms to hand to blacks.

REUTERS ARB AS1603

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