60 years of self-rule but we still can’t pay workers on time

Author: Musaazi Namiti. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Uganda has embarked on ambitious projects, such as the Parish Development Model, which seeks to lift people out of poverty. 

Every country’s dream is to develop and become a prosperous nation where people have high incomes and enjoy high standards of living.
For many countries, this is easier said than done, of course — and for Uganda, you have to be an incurable optimist to think that we are on the right track, considering that we still struggle to do simple things that some countries do effortlessly.

The prize example is our failure to pay on time people we employ. This is something I have witnessed for decades, and it really makes me shake my head in utter disbelief. I fail to comprehend how, for example, a government agency headed by — and employing — people with university-level education fails to pay salaries. How does it happen?
The latest case involves cleaners working for Kampala City Council Authority, which is in the same league as Umeme and the Uganda Police Force when it comes to service delivery. The cleaners, mostly women, are paid starvation salaries, but no one seems able to pay them. 

In videos posted to social media, they said they had not been paid for months yet they worked in difficult conditions, walking miles to the duty station because Covid-19 lockdowns meant they could not use public transport. When KCCA tried to pay them, the cleaners said, it only disbursed a fraction of what they were supposed to pay. To try to get paid, they organised a protest and carried placards denouncing the KCCA executive director, Dorothy Kisaka.
It is understandable when there is a delay of several days in salary payment. But when workers do not get paid for five months consecutively, how can we convince anyone that we care about the well-being of people and development and are taking the country in the right direction?

The failure to pay workers simply means we are a disorganised, dysfunctional country. Our leadership is rotten and tired, of course. You cannot have effective leadership and have workers going months without salaries. It is simply scandalous, considering that jobs mean almost everything in our lives.
Uganda has embarked on ambitious projects, such as the Parish Development Model, which seeks to lift people out of poverty. It launched a satellite into orbit. It is developing Covid-19 vaccines. But I doubt we will make real progress when we are failing to perform the simplest of tasks — tasks that do not require intellectual stamina at all.

It is much easier to get every worker’s salary into their bank account than to make Covid-19 vaccines. It is much easier to provide electricity in Kampala and a few urban places in Uganda than making electric cars. And for KCCA, it is much easier to pay cleaners than to develop a modern city.
In countries we admire and want to emulate, it is unthinkable that workers can go without pay for months. Yet in Uganda, almost every month there is a government department or a public school whose workers will be complaining about non-payment of their salaries. 

Here are just a couple of examples. We started 2023 when workers at the Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI), where patients often sleep in the open because there are no beds, were on a sit-down strike over delayed salaries
The UCI boss, Dr Jackson Orem, who spoke to this this publication, seemed unfazed. He said: “Our staff are not the only government workers who have not been paid.”
The full extent of our disorganisation was brought home to us by the story of Joseph Bataziine. He retired in June 1984; he was still chasing his pension in March 2022.

Mr Namiti is a journalist and former Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk
[email protected]    @kazbuk