Wildcat strikes for better pay that have hit Zimbabwe could trigger wider work boycotts and spontaneous street protests, escalating political tensions in the crisis-hit country, analysts said on Monday.
Opposition attempts to organise peaceful demonstrations against President Robert Mugabe's government -- largely blamed for a deep economic crisis -- have failed so far, leaving analysts asking if Zimbabweans are afraid to face their leaders.
But on Monday labour experts said angry workers may be taking the lead with a rash of recent strikes that could trigger street protests in a country battling economic meltdown and an inflation rate now riding well above 1,000 percent.
That would set them on a collision course with the government, which has used the police and army to quash past protests.
"The groundswell of discontent is there and the strikes could just be the spark that is needed for an explosion of anger that is bottled up among many Zimbabweans," Eldred Masunungure, a leading political commentator said.
"The prospects of spontaneous and uncontrolled protests is very real and the end will not be predictable. There is nothing as dangerous as unemployed but skilled workforce, that is inflammable raw material," said Masunungure.
Critics say Mugabe's politically driven economic decisions have pushed the country into seven years of recession and left it with runaway unemployment and rising poverty.
Mugabe's government says Zimbabwe is the victim of unfair economic sanctions led by London and Washington aimed at toppling him from power.
Hospitals, power shut down
Public medical care in Zimbabwe all but ground to a halt last week when doctors at state hospitals boycotted work to demand salary hikes of more than 8,000 percent -- leaving hospital waiting rooms jammed with patients needing treatment.
Large sections of Harare, including the central business district, were briefly blacked out on Thursday when workers at power utility ZESA Holdings switched off the capital to demand better pay.
Previous predictions of widespread public protests against Mugabe have often proved wrong. But rising frustration among the country's workforce could be a potent new factor.
Government employees -- the majority of the country's workers -- earn an average 50,000 Zimbabwe dollars ($400) while official figures show that an average family of five requires Z$228,133 a month not to be deemed poor.
Bread ranges between $2.80 and $4.80, while a two litre can of cooking oil costs about $30 and a commuter bus fare costs around $4. Workers also have to contend with burst sewers, power and water cuts and collapsing public infrastructure.
Companies have battled to stay in business while the government -- shunned by foreign donors over controversial policies such as the seizure of white-owned commercial farms for blacks -- has no money to pay higher wages.
Zimbabwe industries are operating below 30 percent capacity, which they blame on severe foreign currency shortages, an unviable exchange rate and official price controls.
The Zimbabwe dollar is officially pegged at 250 to the U.S unit but trades at around 3,000 on a thriving black market.
"More strikes in offing"
Economic analysts said there appeared little imminent hope for hard-pressed Zimbabwean workers, raising the stakes in the troubled southern African country.
"The ability to pay realistic wages is directly related to the viability of the business, but there are worrying signals that government is keen on price controls," Marah Hativagone, president of Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce told Reuters.
But labour unions were adamant, promising more industrial action to press for better pay.
"Ongoing job action is just a tip of the iceberg, more strikes are in the offing, especially in the public sector," said Lovemore Matombo, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and an outspoken Mugabe critic.
"The only way to push for concessions is through street protests," he said.