WORKERS at Chambeshi Water and Sewerage Company have gone for three months without being paid their salaries and are calling for the firing of management on grounds of mismanagement.

But company managing director Luckson Simumba says the company has started clearing the arrears and has begun the installation of prepaid meters to ensure improvement of cash flow in the company.

The workers, who spoke anonymously in separate interviews, lamented over what they termed as lack of commitment from management to listen to their plight.

“We want the management to go because these are people who do not feel for their employees. Their interest is to put their interest before everyone’s interest. They forget why they are in these positions because everything starts from the people who are working for them. And as long as they are in those positions, we will keep on suffering because they intimidate us a lot; we can’t talk; we can’t voice out. When you complain to them, there are issues. They do not prioritise our salaries, they prioritise their movements so that they can be getting allowances and some of the allowances they get are four or five times the salaries of workers. So, if government cares to get a vote, they should fire the management because they have turned the image of government upside down,” complained one of the employees.

“Truth is, life is hard, things are expensive! Everything is skyrocketing on the market and to go for three months without being paid when you have children to pay school fees, rent and feed? It’s really sad. The Minister was here a few weeks back and he is aware that we are in arrears, but hasn’t done anything about it so it’s like government knows we are suffering and it’s okay with them because they are not directly affected. And we can’t even speak out because they [management] will intimidate and threaten you, so really, we are just surviving and it’s hard! We are tired of the MD painting a picture perfect idea on TV; always on TV, being ‘man of the moment,’ yet we, the backbone of the company, are suffering twanaka! (We are tired!) He can’t feel the impact of not being paid because his five-digit salary can take him for more than three months and his ever-travelling week in, week out, so he makes allowances and here I am, earning a K3,000 and it’s coming after three months, no allowance whatsoever! How do they think I am surviving?”

But when contacted, Simumba insisted that the company only owed the workers for two months, but explained that the poor cash flows generated were due to the directive not to disconnect defaulting customers.

“It is not true. First of all, challenges are everywhere, especially with the COVID-19 issues that we have in the country and worldwide, that have also affected the water sector. The last time we spoke, we were three months behind and we actually managed to become current after we had received the GRZ water bills from government. So, we were currently up to somewhere around December, last year, and the directive not to disconnect defaulting customers proved to be a challenge with some of the customers not paying for the service. So, that started pushing us in the negative in terms of low collection levels because you and I know that sometimes customers, until you follow them in terms of disconnection, that’s when, now, they are forced to pay. But with that pronouncement, most of the people misunderstood the support that government was trying to provide by allowing the flow of water to fight COVID-19. But some customers misunderstood that support and they stopped paying,” he explained.

“So, our collection efficiency dropped from 100 per cent to somewhere around 50 per cent on average and with that, now, it affected a number of things, including salaries. So, that is one of the biggest challenges that we have. And then, also, the cost of chemicals, especially that we needed to buy chemicals to continue supplying clean and safe drinking water. So, with reduced cash flow, you are more or less like you are having a blanket that you need to cover everyone. But it’s not just possible that you can cover all the costs because of the reduced cash flow. So, we do the treading between to supply and not to supply, again, if we don’t supply, there will be issues of waterborne diseases, issues of COVID-19 and all that, it will be a challenge, so we need to tread in between.”

He, however, added that the company had started dismantling the salary arrears and is installing 4,500 prepaid meters so that customer defaults were done away with.

“We are slowly dismantling the salaries to the workers, we are not even three months, we are actually two months behind now because we are actually installing prepaid meters because we feel that even if there is a directive, as long as someone has got a prepaid (metre), they will be forced to come and pay. So, we’re installing about 4,500 under the African Development Bank (AfDB) project, so we are actually installing using the same plumbers so that they understand why we need money. So, they are installing metres and we are hoping that once we complete this exercise, we are going to improve the cash flow and issues of delayed salaries will come to an end,” he said.

“Then, we have applied for an overdraft from one of the banks, so if we are allowed, we should be able to apply for that facility and pay salaries. And it’s just dedicated to salaries, actually, so that we improve the morale in our people for them to perform. The other thing that we have done is that we’ve also engaged other banks and financial institutions to allow for salary advances from the banks so that we are able to cushion the impact as well. So, we are working towards resolving most of these challenges; that is where we are.”

And when asked whether the directive to supply defaulting customers should be done away with, Simumba agreed, saying that water was supplied at a cost and the resources were needed to efficiently manage operations.

“Definitely, we all know that water supply needs to be provided and it comes at an expense because it goes through the filters; you need to treat it; you need to supply using energy; you need to pay your workers and it’s actually a cost for us now to provide that service and we are called a commercial utility, meaning that we need the resources to manage the operation. So, that can also be looked at if possible so that utilities are allowed out-rightly to just follow those that are defaulting. If they have accumulated water bills, for example, they are ready to sign the payment plan so that we recover the monies that are owed by customers and institutions,” replied Simumba.