Yemen’s workers are trapped between war and hunger

Yemen's workers are trapped between war and hunger
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After months without pay, the Yemeni author and newspaper editor Hassan Abdel Warith was forced to put his library of 5,000 books on sale to feed his family. And he’s one of the lucky ones: as war rages on in Yemen, its 25 million men, women and children are struggling to survive.

According to World Health Organisation estimates, 80 per cent of the population is in need of aid. Even prior to the recent war, some 54.5 per cent of the population lived in poverty.

Even those who are fortunate enough to have jobs in the first place are suffering. Abdel Warith, who is the chief editor of the government-owned newspaper Al Wahda is amongst 1.25 million state employees in Yemen who hasn’t been paid for more than four months.

Thousands of workers have been staging strikes and sit-ins in the middle of a conflict that has so far killed more than 10,000 people since September 2014, not to mention a severe economic crisis and a general state of repression.

“The salary delay has exacerbated our suffering as low-income people now face daily problems with landlords and food stores,” says Mana’a Shaddad, a government employee.

The war in Yemen between the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, and Houthi rebels supported by ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Iran, began in March 2015.

More than 36,000 people have been injured in the fighting and a humanitarian crisis is unfolding due to the destruction of hospitals, schools, bridges and businesses by airstrikes, bombs and gunfire.

The war has cut off oil, customs and tax revenues, putting public finance, and the governmental sector – which was already chronically under-resourced – on the brink of collapse.

 

Months without pay

The government is trying to keep the national bank in operation, after moving it from the Houthi-controlled capital city of Sana’a to the coastal city of Aden, where the government is currently based – however, the country is grinding to a halt.

"All state institutions are disabled because of the late payment of salaries,” says an employee in the Ministry of Finance who spoke to Equal Times on condition of anonymity.

“There are protests and widespread anger in the majority of governmental entities. Even those employees who fear the Houthis and are not protesting are staying in their homes waiting for news about salaries.”

As a result of unpaid salaries, not only has Yemen seen an unprecedented number of people begging on the streets, but the crisis has also contributed to worsening food shortages, with the emergence of famine on the western coast and 14.14 million people across the country suffering from food insecurity.

“It is unfortunate that government employees’ salaries are transformed into a subject of political conflict,” says Abdel Qawy Hussein, an employee in the Ministry of Water and Environment. “What did hundreds of thousands of employees do wrong to find themselves suddenly without income?”

A Yemeni official confirmed to Equal Times that over a million employees in state institutions have gone without pay for months. These employees support 6.9 million people, nearly half of them children.

The total government salary and wage bill amounts to 75 billion rials monthly (US$300 million), of which 25 billion rials (US$100 million) goes to military personnel, according to the Central Bank of Yemen.

The war has also deprived about 1.5 million poor people of cash subsidies from the social welfare fund since the beginning of 2015, with 63 per cent of them already suffering from food insecurity, according to official data. The total cost of those cash subsidies is estimated to be around 22.7 billion rials (US$90 million) every three months.

“The liquidity crisis led to the suspension not only of the salaries of state employees, but also the expenses of the state budget in general, leading to significant risks to economic, social and humanitarian indicators,” says Sarah Abdullah, an employee at the Yemeni Ministry of Planning.

She adds that famine indicators are growing day after day, with the increasing risk of an all-out humanitarian disaster.

 

Worker action

The head of the General Federation of Trade Unions of Yemen, Ali Belkhadr, has called on the United Nations and international financial organisations to pressure the warring parties to agree on a mechanism to pay the salaries.

Trade unions are demanding a greater role in both the peace process and social dialogue, staging strikes in Sana’a as well as Aden to protest against the salary stoppage.

A trade unionist with the General Electricity Corporation said that about 24,000 employees who support more than 100,000 dependents have been without salaries for more than five months, and that all their protests during this period were repressed by both the government and the Houthis.

Late last year, the Union Of Electrical Workers In Aden threatened to disconnect the power from all service centres if their demands were not met.

But for now the economy is in a state of paralysis.

Mustafa Nasr, chairman of the Economic Media Centre in Yemen, describes the salary stoppage on his Facebook page as a “snowball that is growing to drown the future of the Yemeni economy”.

The Yemeni government’s decision in September to transfer the central bank from Sana’a to Aden came after President Hadi said the Houthis were squandering foreign reserves.

During his visit to New York that month, he promised international institutions that he would secure the salaries of all Yemenis without exception, even those living in Houthi-controlled areas.

However, even after changing the board of directors and promising to print four hundred billion rials (around US$1.5 billion), the central bank was still unable to facilitate the payment of late salaries.

Months later, Yemen’s working class continues to be hit hard by a crisis that has no end in sight.