The Trade Union Congress of Tanzania (Tucta) yesterday called off its planned nationwide strike following President Jakaya Kikwete's unprecedented public criticism of the union officials and stern warning to workers on Monday not to take part in it.
The decision not to go ahead with the boycott, which had been scheduled to begin today, was announced at a press conference in Dar es Salaam addressed the Tucta president, Mr Omary Ayoub Juma.
The announcement came as a great relief to top government officials, who can now fully concentrate on hosting the over 1,000 delegates, including 13 heads of state and government, who are in the country to attend the World Economic Forum. The big meeting, the first of its kind in East Africa, opens today.
Anxiety over the strike called to press the government to grant a pay increase, improve pension schemes and reduce taxes, mounted after President Kikwete, in a hard-hitting televised speech to Dar es Salaam elders at Diamond Jubilee Hall, declared it illegal and warned the workers of dire consequences should they heed Tucta's call.
It had been generally felt that the timing of the strike to coincide with the major international meeting was bad, as it would cast the country in a negative light, with the global media focusing on the WEF meeting.
Yesterday, as the union officials backed down, President Kikwete was assuring investors on the eve of the conference that the country's labour relations were sound and they should have no fears about doing business here.
Speaking during the closing ceremony of the Investment Climate Facility meeting in Dar es Salaam, he reiterated his earlier position that the planned strike was illegal.
On Monday, a visibly angry President had warned that the government would not spare any efforts to stop the strike, warning that public service employees who would take part risked losing their jobs.
Declaring that the union officials had a hidden agenda, as they had alluded to the General Election to be held in October, he said he would not be cowed as the government could not afford to pay the Sh315,000 minimum wage demanded by the union. He said he would not lie to workers and if that was the condition for them to vote for him then they should as well not do so.
But the nearly two hours long speech in which he tore into Tucta's national leadership, whom he branded as "liars and hypocrites", did not go down well with some politicians and ordinary citizens.
Some people took exception to the strong language and threats used by the head of state against a group they said was only "democratically championing its own rights".
For its part, Tucta announced it had temporarily called off the strike, pending a meeting between the union and the government scheduled for May 8.
However, Tucta boss Juma pointed out the meeting would discuss other issues and not the dispute over the Sh315,000 in minimum wage demand.
"Whereas the President says that discussions on this agenda will continue on May 8, this is not true, as the subject has long been closed after both parties disagreed," said Mr Juma.
Both parties, he added, had agreed at their last meeting to meet on May 8, to discuss income tax, which the union felt should not exceed nine per cent. The government, he said, had promised to look into the possibility of lowering it from 15 to 13 per cent.
"In principle, the meeting on May 8, has this single agenda, though the President of the United Republic of Tanzania believes that it will seek solutions to all other agenda items," he said.
Speaking to The Citizen in Dar es Salaam, a political science lecturer at St Augustine University, Prof Mwesiga Baregu, said he couldn't understand why the President was so angry about an issue that had persisted since 2006.
"I had expected him to be more conciliatory and above the fray, as he brings Tucta and the ministry closer for continuing negotiations," said Prof Baregu, a former long-serving lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam.
He said the President's posture possibly had something to do with the World Economic Forum, which has attracted delegates from 85 countries.
Prof Baregu said the President should just have appealed to Tucta in the spirit of patriotism and nationalism to postpone or call off the strike.
The university don also queried the basis on which the 100 per cent minimum wage increase for the private sector, which the minister for Labour and Youth Development, Prof Juma Kapuya, announced recently was made.
He said: "The minimum wage is scientifically arrived at by carefully determining the Consumer Price Index (CPI), inflation rate and the value of the currency, among other things. When this is done, it forms the basis for all sectors, as these people do not go to different markets."
A veteran lawyer and former East African Legislative Council MP, Mr Mabere Marando, disagreed with the President's remark that Tucta was also demanding higher salaries for househelp and other domestic workers.
"I have been advising the trade union movement for many years now to affiliate themselves with political parties so that they become strong, otherwise they will remain weak and subject to rebuke by the authorities," said Marando.
Had they been affiliated to political parties, their demands for salary increments and reduction of taxes would have become the agenda of those organisations in challenging the government, he added.
Chadema Secretary General Willibrod Slaa said: "I am telling the President that no one, including him, is above the law."
Dr Slaa, the MP for Karatu, accused the President Kikwete of flouting the law by publicly ridiculing the ongoing labour negotiations.
He said the Employment and Labour Relations Act of 2004, which the President repeatedly cited during his tirade against Tucta, "provides that if negotiations fail the matter should be forwarded for either arbitration or to the labour tribunal. It does not say the President could threaten to sack those who go on strike".
The Civic United Front chairman, Prof Ibrahim Lipumba, who is a renowned economist, said the President was biased in his criticism of Tucta, and clearly sided with the government.
Prof Lipumba said the President was wrong "since the facts such as the rising cost of living legitimise call for salary increments".