THE MAST EDITORIAL COMMENT FOR 08/12/2016: Pension reforms or theft of workers’ money?

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In the 2017 budget speech, the Minister of Finance, Felix Mutati, alluded to the need for pension reforms in order to give people “more freedoms and choices”.

He stated that “the government will in 2017 present legislation that will allow new entrants into public schemes, revise the employer and employee contributions upwards, facilitate private sector management of pension funds and revise the benefit scheme to ensure longer-term protection for pensioners”.

The first question to the finance minister would be: where and how did the current pension system fail the Zambian workers? Without clarity on this issue, the direction of the proposed pension reforms will be muddled in ambiguity. Giving the workers “more freedoms and choices” is a poor and dishonest explanation of what has gone wrong.

The pension system in Zambia has failed on account of political inertia, massive corruption in the management of pension funds and archaic operational systems. This is failure by design and not by default. The three factors allow our ruling and business elite unhindered access to workers’ money without having sweated for it.

Since 1992, several studies have been undertaken and recommendations made on how to improve the pension management system. Several countries were visited, stakeholder consultations held and the national budget speeches by Ronald Penza, Emmanuel Kasonde, Edith Nawakwi and subsequent finance ministers made mention of pension reforms.

Why have these reforms remained illusive? Why is it proving difficult to prioritise such a critical aspect of livelihood affecting hundred thousands of our workers? Why do ministers, permanent secretaries, chief executive officers of corporations get their post-retirement or end of contract entitlements that quickly? Yet the same system is lethargic in dealing with the pension needs of the ordinary workers!

For the ordinary Zambian worker, life after retirement or at the end of a contract is a nightmare. Forms have to be filled in, countless journeys made to “push” the papers and unending phone calls made in follow-ups. It is rare to receive all pension dues within a year. We have in our midst retired workers that are still not fully attended to 10 years after retirement. The hopelessness and frustrations on their faces tells it all. These are dejected and impoverished citizens. Yet they served their homeland diligently over a long period of time. Now that they are no longer needed in revenue generation, they are cast aside like garbage! Many of them have been spared the misery of dealing with the pension offices through death. They died after retirement without accessing their pension money.

Who is the beneficiary of this daylight robbery?

Increasingly, pension funds are now being channelled towards financing the construction of shopping malls, “gated” housing complexes and upmarket office spaces. All of these target the rich. The poor Zambian worker is therefore financing the luxurious living and working environment of the rich. It is an investment that is not in the best interest of the workers.

What if the pension funds were used to construct modern public markets in the compounds where the majority of the workers live?

How about low-cost houses that would be rented or eventually owned by an ordinary worker?

Why not channel some of the funds into profitable micro-credit schemes owned and managed by workers themselves?

Unfortunately, this will not happen. We live in an economic system where the interests of the workers come last. The worker’s wealth is appropriated for the wellbeing of the elite.

The 2017 pension reform is therefore meant to formalise an existing trend. Workers will be forced to pay more towards pension funds whilst the private sector will now have unhindered access. This is not about ensuring longer-term protection for pensioners. It will be a reform that enhances the avenues for stealing workers’ hard earned pension funds. Just like civil works’ contractors get away with millions of dollars without completing projects, the private pension fund managers will follow suit. They will join the bandwagon. They will make millions out of the pensioners but give nothing back. Ours is a country where political patronage overrides legal, commercial and economic considerations. Zambian workers have not gained much from the existing pension system; they stand to lose even more from the envisaged 2017 pension reforms.

Yes, pension reforms are urgently required in our homeland. These should be reforms that put the interests of the workers first, that empower organised labour in running the pension funds, where viable investments that improve working class communities and services are prioritised and where robust ICT platforms and mobile phone application services will make it possible to access pension funds on day one of retirement without stepping foot away from one’s locality.

Some countries having similar GDP per capita to that of Zambia are successfully moving along that path. All it takes is a dose of political will and honesty.

Our trade unions could also play a significant role in enabling this change. Their collective voice has been missing all along. It is time for justice and fairness to prevail.

A pension system is too important for the working masses to be left primarily in the hands of politicians.

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