I never saw myself on the management side of a strike. When I came to Tanzania to serve people who are suffering, I thought that I had moved about as far away from that as possible.
But that’s where I found myself on March 10, 2018.
The young men who work for the brick project had shown up for work on the day before, but had decided that the work was too much. They wanted to return to the previous pay scale, where they were paid a flat rate. They had quit working and returned to the streets.
It was a strange feeling to have worked so hard to help these five young men, and then have them complain that we were treating them unfairly. These five folks are just as real as me though, and if all five of them see the world differently from me, then that’s good evidence that I’m missing something.
So I talked to the Tanzanians who are supervising the project, and we decided to listen to the youth. We met in the Church, the youth sitting across from us in plastic chairs, the four of us on wooden benches.
“The work is hard, and the money is small”, they began. Why couldn’t they return to the previous pay scale, instead of being paid per-brick? Could they have gum boots and gloves? And carrying that heavy machine back into the shed each day gets old. Can they save money by cooking for themselves instead of us paying a cook?
Mwita, a volunteer who has worked with these youth since 2012, took the lead in replying. He explained that this project had been started with a grant from a Church, but the project was meant to be a self-sustaining business. They had been paid a flat rate from the grant during the training phase, as they learned how to use the machine. This rate had often been greater than the market value of the bricks they were making. That was fine in the training phase, but now that they have learned make the bricks, we can’t keep doing that, or the business will run at a loss and die.
Mwita also knew that these young men were suspicious that we were going to be making a killing off of them. So he proceeded to show them how much the bricks sold for, and exactly where every shilling was going, so they would see why we cannot afford to increase their pay right now. A couple of us lent our phones so that 2 of the better-educated youth could run the simple calculations themselves.
We embraced the idea of them cooking for themselves, and showed them how much more they would be making with this change. We also explained to them that their pay would be going up next month, as they learned to supervise themselves and our current supervisor’s paid position became unnecessary.
At the end of the meeting, everyone was happy, including me. I was thankful that we had decided to listen to them and respond to their concerns.
Since then, they have steadily increased from making 120 bricks in a day to 200 in a day. On two of the last three days of work, they worked well without supervision. After the cooking change and the production increase, the money they make in a day has nearly doubled. On Monday the 26th, they were pretty excited to use the money they had saved to buy new clothes, shoes, and food.