BULAWAYO (IRIN) – Zimbabwe’s striking teachers have rejected an appeal by new Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai that they return to work, demanding negotiations on their salary scales in foreign currency as promised.

‘Teachers want money in their pockets, not promises,’ said Sifiso Ndlovu, acting head of the Zimbabwe Teachers Association. ‘He [Tsvangirai] should explain how much we are going to be paid, and the mode of payment.’

Tsvangirai told a rally on 11 February, the day he was sworn in as part of a new power-sharing government, that public workers would all be paid in foreign currency, and urged those on strike to report for duty on 16 February.

‘Tsvangirai has to consult President [Robert] Mugabe and cabinet on the payment of salaries in foreign currency, and once he has done that, then he should table a figure that he will discuss with us teachers,’ Ndlovu said.

Zimbabwe’s teachers, on strike since September last year, are demanding salaries starting at US$2,200 as a result of the semi-official dollarisation of the economy.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) last week reported that about 94 percent of rural schools failed to open at the start of the 2009 academic year.

A broke Zimbabwe is in the grip of an unprecedented economic and humanitarian crisis marked by the world’s highest inflation rate, food shortages, and a cholera epidemic that has infected more than 70,000 people and killed over 3,500.

Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change party, which is now part of a unity government with Mugabe’s rival ZANU-PF, has admitted he does not yet know where the foreign exchange will come from to pay public workers at the end of the month.

‘But I have made a commitment, and we have to find the money to pay them. But how much, it still hasn’t been decided,’ he said. ‘We must find something to alleviate the plight of our people who have been receiving worthless currency.’

The militant Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe said almost half the country’s teachers have crossed the border to South Africa, Botswana or further abroad looking for work, even if they are menial jobs.

In related developments, the Harare-based The Zimbabwe Times reports the country’s umbrella labour organisation has called on all civil servants to return to work in support of the unity government.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union (ZCTU) told a press briefing held at the union’s offices in Harare that they support the unity government but only on a transitional basis. They therefore urged all workers to return to work and give the government a chance.

“We are cognisant of the fact that workers particularly teachers and nurses have been on strike since last year and would need to borrow some money for them to be able to go to work but we are urging them to go to work in the spirit of co-existence,” said ZCTU President, Lovemore Matombo.

Matombo was speaking just an hour after his ZCTU leadership had just met Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in a meeting where they discussed issues of labour and how they should be addressed by the new government.

He said he was confident that the Prime Minister whom he repeatedly referred to as the “new paymaster,” was cognisant of the worker’s needs and would deliver on his promises of paying civil servants in United States dollars, starting from the end of February.

“The statement came from the paymaster himself and who are we to question him. I have no doubt in my mind that the statement was well thought out and well researched before it was said,” said Matombo.

Asked if he had been told anything about the source of the money Matombo, said normally it was only the paymaster who knows where money comes from and his own concern was that workers are paid in a currency of value.

“We are not concerned about where the money comes from as workers. All we want is to be paid, the paymaster is the one who manages the fiscus and he knows where the money will come from,” said Matombo.

Alluding to a worst case scenario where Tsvangirai fails to deliver on his promises, Matombo said, “If you tell lies, you are creating problems for yourself.”

As Matombo addressed journalists in his 9th floor office, a host of temporary, retired and black listed teachers had gathered on the 4th floor seeking redeployment following Tsvangirai’s announcement that all civil servants would be paid in U.S. dollars.

Turning onto the ZCTU leadership’s meeting with Tsvangirai, Matombo said they had spoken about the need to revise workers tax bands.

“We are some of the most highly taxed people in the world and we would want to continue (to challenge) the government on that aspect,” said Matombo.

Matombo added that the new government should restore civil liberties, accept the concept of rule of law, move to apply the international treaties in respect to human and people’s rights, including labour standards.

He said government should also ensure that there is a clear separation of powers among arms of the state and respect labour laws. He said the new government should bury authoritarian rule and suppression of worker’s rights as has been the case over the past decade.

“The major problem is that the new government must bury authoritarian rule and replace it with a democratic governance system. The ZCTU calls on both Zanu-PF and MDC to forge a sustained political alliance that leads to political tolerance during and after general elections,” said Matombo.

The ZCTU has now put on hold its plans for a national strike which was scheduled for the end of the month to push for payment of all workers in foreign currency in response to the virtual dollarization of the economy.

“We want to work with the new government,” said Matombo.