Judicial officers at the weekend overwhelmingly resolved to strike and keep away from courts if government does not address their grievances on welfare and salaries within one month.
The judicial officers met at Kampala High Court premises last Saturday and 185 of them voted in support of industrial action while one was opposed to it. The voting was by secret ballot.
Mr Godfrey Kaweesa, the president of Uganda Judicial Officers Association (UJOA), which unites all judicial officers in the country, shortly after the voting, said he would today serve the relevant government authorities the 30-day notice.
Mr Kaweesa said the notice to government starts today and ends on August 23.
He warned that should there be no tangible progress by August 23, the strike will start and all the members will stay away from courts.
Prior to the vote for industrial action, the judicial officers held a heated discussion where they poured out their frustration over poor salaries.
The more than 400 judicial officers want government to increase their salaries to match the earnings of their counterparts in other government departments and agencies, provide them official vehicles, medical insurance, housing and security to those who don’t have.
The minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Maj Gen Kahinda Otafiire attended the heated discussion of the judicial officers.
Gen Otafiire had earlier met raging hostility from LC5 chairpersons who chased him from Namboole Stadium where they had convened over similar grievances of poor remuneration.
The minister laboured to dissuade the charged judicial officers from a strike and asked them to give him three months to address their welfare issues. He said there are competing national priorities such as construction of power dams and roads.
This comes barely a week after government wooed back State prosecutors who had gone on a strike over welfare issues. Government promised to handle their issues within three months.
Principal Judge Yorokamu Bamwine, in the contentious debate, blamed the judicial officers’ low pay on technocrats in the Finance ministry.
“This is ejoogo, (disrespect) by the Finance ministry officials not to implement President Museveni’s directive to have our welfare enhanced,” Justice Bamwine said sparking cheers from the judicial officers.
“It’s these technocrats in the Finance ministry who have disobeyed the President’s directive. Do they want him to pronounce himself again? No, this is untenable,” Justice Bamwine further stated.
Under the current judiciary salary structure, Grade Two Magistrate earns Shs737, 837 a month, Senior Grade Two Magistrate (Shs860, 810), Principal Magistrate Grade Two (Shs1.2m), Magistrate Grade One (Shs1.5m) and Principal Magistrate Grade One (Shs2.1m).
Senior Principal Magistrate Grade One gets Shs2.2m, Chief Magistrate (Shs2.4m), Assistant Registrar earns Shs3.1m and Chief Registrar earns Shs4.8m.
Those on a higher bench such as the Chief Justice earns Shs20m, his deputy Shs18m and Principal Judge (Shs10m) while a Supreme Court judge earns Shs9.6m) and a judge of Court of Appeal/Constitutional Court gets Shs9.3m) with a High Court judge receiving Shs9m.
In the proposed new salary structure by the judicial officers, they want the highest ranking officer (Chief Justice) to earn Shs55m per month and the lowest ranking judicial officer (Grade Two magistrate) Shs11m.
In the Saturday meeting, Soroti chief magistrate Ms Ruth Nabasa said for more than 10 years, she has worked in the Judiciary, they have been reading from the book of “Lamentations” and that it’s time to read from the book of “Acts.”
She evoked a Biblical allusion which implied that the judicial officers have been complaining about low pay for too long and it’s time they took action–strike. “It’s very unfortunate for you to fight for the rights of others yet you cannot fight for your own rights. We are judicial officers, we work in terrible conditions; at 3am we are on the road and what do we get at the end of the month? A lousy pay cheque,” Chief Magistrate Nabasa said in an emotional submission.
She further lamented amid ululations from her colleagues: “A pay cheque that cannot cater for you if got sick or even to pay for your children’s school fees! We have put in service 13 years and for all the years I have been in practice, the pay cheque is Shs2.8m. Honourable minister, we have read from the book of Lamentations for so long, we are now reading from the book of Acts of the Apostles,” she told Gen Otafiire who looked more disturbed than shocked.
“I think it’s time for us to claim our right position as an arm of government. We need to be treated with dignity. When you are sleeping next to a brewery like I do, you have no audacity to question those thugs even when they make passes at me, because to them, we are equal. If I was any better than them, I would be residing in premises befitting a judicial officer,” Ms Nabasa lamented.
In a brief response to her submission, Mr Otafiire said she was preaching to the ‘converted’.
The minister said he is aware of the depilated courts from which they work. He said he would love to improve their conditions and that he was negotiating with government.
Another magistrate from Abim court Mr Elisha Arinaitwe said he lacks an official car and last Friday as he travelled from duty to Kampala for their general assembly, he travelled by public means and sat next to a person he had convicted. He said he was ‘scared’ of his life.
“You should have seen the way he was looking at me,” Magistrate Arinaitwe said.
Masaka resident judge John Eudes Keitirima said: “We have been taken for granted, if the government can’t give us a timeline in which to address our issues, then we shall give them the timeline.”
Justice Keitirima’s remark was prompted by lack of a definite answer from the Justice minister about their biting grievances.