World Vision diffuses strike, but staff woes remain in Malawi

World Vision staff members help distribute water for people displaced by the earthquake in Guatemala in 2012. The Christian aid organization's national staff in Malawi went in protest for three days over salary increases and other payments. Photo by: World Vision

The management of World Vision in Malawi has agreed to put on hold contract changes among its staff in an effort to end a strike that, if prolonged, could have significant impact on the organization’s operations in the African country.

Both parties arrived at that arrangement last week after three days of protests over salary increases and other payments. The aid group has opted to follow its new policy  — a growing trend among implementing partners — of transitioning to fixed-term contracts for staff members in response to changing donor grant cycles, but lack of funding for this purpose has posed serious challenges to implementing the changes.

“There are payments that are supposed to be affected if one is leaving open to fixed-term contracts,” acting country director Paulaw Kitheka told Devex. “But being a donor-funded organization, we do not raise such amount of money for these particular costs, yet it is in our guidelines to pay when somebody is making that switch in contract. So because we do not hold any money, we do not make any profit — and that has been clarified and communicated to staff — we have opted to stay in the status quo.”

World Vision Malawi announced it will seek a “more acceptable legal option” through consultations with its its regional office for Southern Africa. As for the salary adjustments, both sides agreed to a 20-50 hike, although still based on labor costs and performance.

“We did recognize as management that indeed there’s an economic challenge in the business environment, work environment, following the devaluation of the [Malawian] kwacha, but that did not necessarily imply we should walk out of our core philosophy, and our calling to this ministry,” said Kitheka, adding they have also agreed to look at possible savings that could be shared or “plowed back” to staff benefits in the form of “temporary cushion allowance” that is set to start in April.

He clarified however: “We’re not committing ourselves to anything because it’s subject to currency fluctuation.”

While it did not affect essential relief operations, the strike was “unfortunate” and “regrettable,” according to Kitheka, who said it did bring out lessons for management and staff.

“We used to get more long-term funding. [But] our funding is becoming a lot short cycle, and there are legal obligations if you kept people on long, indefinite contracts, and you have short funding cycles. Our donors are beginning to grow more in grants, which are time-bound. Therefore it was our thinking - and still is - that it is good to align our contracts to the length of funding, to avoid possible legal challenges when staff are transitioning,” he explained.

The case of World Vision in Malawi is not isolated.

Also last week, staff members of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in the West Bank ended a two-month strike over salary disputes and newly-introduced employment policies. Deficits in the U.N. agency’s annual budget have made it impossible to submit to the demands of its employees on across-the-board salary increases, but it has promised a month ago to explore options for those with time-bound contracts under its emergency job creation project.

The agreement on Thursday, however, does not specify the terms reached by both parties, while UNRWA has yet to respond to a request from Devex for more specifics on the deal.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.