GOVERNMENT FOREST GUARDS MYSTERIOUSLY MISS OUT ON THE  PAYROLL 

Mulanje is blessed with abundant natural beauty. For a group of Department of Forestry guards, employed by the government to ensure the trees and environment are safe, seeing their salaries constantly disappear from the government payroll for months, sometimes two years, without explanation has been an endless nightmare.

A group of forestry guards like the ones pictured with former Minister Bintony Kumtsaira having been through a nightmare at Mulanje Central Government Plantation

  • Government Working on it

BY MILIMO CHITSULO

They are not ghost workers. They were legitimately hired by the Malawi government to help manage the country’s forests. But for the past decade, their salaries—and names—have been appearing and disappearing from the payroll, in some instances, for several consecutive months. 

And despite attempts to alert authorities, no lasting solution appears to be emerging, with some workers staying close to two years without receiving their salaries at the Department of Forestry’s Mulanje Central Government Plantation. 

Information we have analysed indicates that from 2011 to 2016, for example, the department omitted from the payroll 35 workers who have since been fighting through internal and external institutions to access their funds but to no avail.

Ministry of Natural Resources and Climate Change conceded that it is aware that a total of 35 forestry workers in Mulanje had been omitted from the Department of Forestry payroll from 2011 to 2016.

At least 3 of the 35 workers died while fighting to access the funds, while the majority have retired, with Capital Hill and the department’s senior management seemingly turning a blind eye to the predicament of these low-ranked officers.

After battling through the Office of Ombudsman and Legal Aid Bureau, in vain, the workers told Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ-Malawi) that they feel abandoned by the state, demoralized and destitute. They narrated personal chastening ordeals of struggle to make ends meet, which led some workers to slip into depression and others ensnared into endless debts after approaching loan sharks. 

The workers bemoaned how the situation impoverished their homes and a sense of betrayal over the government’s response to their pleas for help, according to documents filed to the Ombudsman and labour office.

Workers at Mulanje Central Government Plantation–which, among others, manages  Mulanje Mountain, one of Malawi’s biggest tourism attractions– began experiencing salary nightmares in 2011, according to information we have analysed. 

The situation keeps replaying itself, with the recent occurrence of salary disappearance happening as recent as August this year when some workers were again omitted from the payroll. This time, it omitted 3 workers on the payroll.  

The workers immediately brought the matter to the attention of their managers. The then Accounts Clerk for Mulanje Central Government Plantation, George Puliwa – now retired – together with the then Human Resources Officer, Patrick Keke – wrote the then Plantation Manager for Mulanje Central Government Plantation, Felix Magodi, informing him about the salary omission that had been taking place at the plantation.

The offices of Mulanje Central Government Plantation (PIC BY MILIMO CHITSULO)

In turn, Magodi also wrote the Secretary for Forest and Natural Resources through the Director of Forestry in the Department of Forestry Headquarters. But 11 years down the line, the workers have not been paid their money.

The workers did not give up. They continued to engage the Department of Forestry. The current Plantation Manager, Bexter Moyo, advised the workers to compile the names of workers whose salaries had not been given to them during the said period. The workers did as advised. 

The proof of their decision is in the letter we have seen dated 15th May 2020  REF.NO.MCGP/A/P  where the list of names, the workers also sent the Secretary for Forestry and Natural Resources their employment numbers, grades, number of unpaid months and the amount they were to receive per month. This, too, yielded nothing.

On 8th October 2020, the workers went to the Office of the Ombudsman in Blantyre where on the same dated letter REF.NO.:OMB/40/BT/2020, the Ombudsman advised the Secretary of Forest and Natural Resources to pay the workers within 21 days.

According to Lunguzi, after the period expired,  the Office of the Ombudsman advised the workers to take the Department of Forestry to court as it was non-committal and that the Ombudsman office could not take any further action as “it is not mandated to drag public institutions to courts.” Instead, the Office of Ombudsman referred Lunguzi to the Legal Aid Bureau. 

A General Receipt dated 2nd February 2022 No. 8874765 from the Legal Aid Bureau shows the workers paid the Bureau MK50,000.00 to commence proceedings against the Forestry Department. Promptly, the Bureau advised the Forestry Department to pay the workers within 14 days.

Eight months down the line, the Forestry Department has not paid the workers.

No Food on the Table

The workers narrate a tale of personal hardships and anguish throughout the period they have been facing salary challenges. While waiting and fighting for their dues, three out of 35 workers – Foster Galimoto, Burton M’mora and Sylvia Karonga – died. Other workers also retired from the government.

One of the retired, Fanny Bauleni, recalls working for the Forestry Department at its Mulanje Central Government Plantation from 1991 to 2020 and how the predicament she faced left her family of five children almost destitute.

“I was omitted on payroll from February to September 2012. Being omitted from the payroll for 8 months made my life a misery. I have five children to look after. This forced me to get loans from loan sharks. I also obtained a loan amounting to K100,000.00 from FINCA. I have only managed to pay back K70,000.00 so far. My two children were in forms 1 and 2 at the time the Forestry Department omitted my name from the payroll. As I am speaking, my children are both in Maliera, my home village. They did not complete their secondary school studies because I failed to pay for their fees,” she said in an interview.

Stephano Kaingano, a former guard who also retired in 2020, said he was denied his salary for 17 months.

“My life was hard. I resorted to borrowing money from loan sharks and other lending institutions for survival. For instance, in 2013, I borrowed K120,000.00 from FINCA,” he said. 

Adding: “After work, I was involving myself in piece works within Songwe, the village I hail from. I used part of the money from the piece works to pay back the loan I got from FINCA.” 

“Some loan shark from our village came to my house and took away my furniture and other household items for failure to pay back his money. To date, the gap that was created after I was omitted from the payroll for 17 months by the Forestry Department, is yet to be filled. My life has been unbearable. Two of my children were in forms 2 and 3 and they all failed to continue with their studies because I couldn’t afford to pay for their tuition,” Kaingano told PIJ.

One of the workers at the Mulanje Forestry Department office

Dyson Beula, now retired, was also omitted from the payroll by the Department of Forestry for 19 months. Then his life became hell.

“As you can see, I am old,” he said, pointing at his frail looks. “I have 8 children to take care of. My being omitted from the payroll for over 19 months with such a big family to cater for hasn’t been that easy for me. Two of my children were in forms 3 and 1. They were sent back home because I failed to pay for their secondary school education.”

He added: “All this prompted me to seek the services of loan sharks. I did this in the hope that I will be paid my salary in arrears and pay back the loan. But, it was never been the case. I lost my bicycle in the process to a loan shark who took it away because I failed to pay back the money I owed him.” 

Luciano Dzimbiri is among those serving as a Forest Guard with Mulanje Central Government Plantation. He, too, was omitted from the payroll from February to May 2012. Dzimbiri described the four-month period without salary as hell, as he experienced mental torture that still he is yet to recover from.

“We go to work with a feeling that at the end of the month, we will be paid. We do make plans on how we will spend the money before the month comes to an end. It was torture. My plans were not executed. One of my children was in form 2. He failed to sit for the Junior Certificate of Education examinations because I didn’t pay tuition and examination. To date, I am in huge debts I am unable to settle,” said a visibly agitated Dzimbiri.

Another forest guard still serving with Mulanje Central Government Plantation in a similar predicament is Christopher Chikwani. In 2010 his name disappeared from the payroll for seven months and later reappeared only to disappear again. 

“The most painful experience to me is that due to salary omission for 7 months, my daughter did not complete her studies at Soche Technical College in Blantyre where she was doing a Diploma programme. She was sent back. The salary omission also compelled me to get into unplanned loans. I obtained loans from GetBucks and Select. I haven’t finished paying back the loan,” he said, adding that he is yet to recover financially and mentally. “I am not at peace.”

The PIJ listened to several other heartbreaking testimonies of the workers, all detailing how the situation devastated their homes and lives and demoralized them from carrying on with their work.

No Accountability 

Despite the pain and anguish suffered by the employees, there still appears to be no accountability for what has been happening or answers to the suffering experienced by these government employees in the forestry department in Mulanje. 

The Ombudsman’s spokesperson Arthur Semba confirmed the workers lodged a complaint with the office but said the matter is still yet to be decided as the Ombudsman noted the workers had resolved to pursue a legal suit against the department in court. 

“The complainants lodged the claim with our office in Blantyre. We opened a file and an investigation commenced with the Department of Forestry. In the course of the investigation, the complainants stated that the matter was lodged with the Legal Aid Bureau and that the Bureau was commencing court proceedings. The complainants were advised to bring documentation to ascertain whether the matter was being handled by the Bureau and the Complainants produced a “Statement of claim” by the Bureau,” explained Semba. 

“So in that regard, they were advised to withdraw the matter with our office based on two things: The matter was already being handled by another competent legal authority and the office of the Ombudsman by law does not investigate any matter that is in court. The (Complainants) wrote the withdrawal notice and the matter was recommended for closure approval as per our protocols,” added Semba in an interview with PIJ.

Legal Aid Bureau Director, Madalitso Chamkakalala while confirming his office was handling the matter, said he could not divulge more details as the information requested fell into confidential client details.

Said Chamkakalala: “I can confirm that the clients are being represented by the Bureau. The rest of the questions are covered by lawyer and client privilege. Please ask the clients to approach our office, and they will be advised accordingly.”

Ministry of Natural Resources Spokesperson, Frank Nkondetseni confirmed in a written response that the Ministry is aware of the issue and working towards addressing the issue of “arrears” for the workers. 

“The Ministry of Natural Resources and Climate Change is aware that a total of 35 forestry workers in Mulanje had been omitted from the Department of Forestry payroll from 2011 to 2016 and there are efforts to make sure that they are paid arrears following laid down procedures,” said Nkondetseni.

Nkondetseni declined to characterize as common the salary omissions, describing the situation in Mulanje as “regrettable” but isolated saying such payroll malfunction happens due to a number of reasons, among them, new appointments into the Civil Service, where it may take some time to introduce newly recruited officers on the Ministry’s payroll,  capturing wrong bank details for officers in the payroll system, failure to appear in person during head counts while others are erroneously omitted.

“Investigations are still being done to establish the root cause of the removal of these officers from payroll during the period stated,” he added.

But why has the Government taken forever to address the challenges after the workers lodged complaints? 

“Procedurally, there was a need for these officers to raise a claim for arrears letter, attach bank statements showing that indeed the salary did not get to their account and the first payslip after the re-introduction of payroll, which the Zone Office did not do when compiling the list of claimants. These omissions happened a long time ago and apart from submitting claims without attaching all required documentation, another cause for the delay in payment was a lack of follow-ups on the submissions on the part of the zone office. The other reason was due to changes in personnel handling the claims for omitted salaries as a result of transferring officers to other duty stations which could have resulted in institutional memory loss especially if there were no proper handovers,” said Banda.

Meanwhile, the department has started working on these claims by sending a team of officers to the south to facilitate the collection of vital documents for speedy processing of their arrears, according to the spokesperson.

The exact timeframe for payment of the salaries, though, is unclear.

Just days after PIJ made some inquiries on the matter, the workers were called to a meeting on the same issue at Mulanje Central Government Plantation offices. 

Perhaps, there is hope for the long-suffering forest guards, or it’s yet another false dawn.