Health workers down tools

ZIMBABWE’S troubled health sector is headed for paralysis after doctors, radiographers, nurses and other specialists yesterday boycotted on-call and night duties citing incapacitation.

This came as government is struggling to end teachers’ class boycott which started when schools opened for the first term on February 7.

Workers in the public and private sectors are demanding foreign currency-denominated salaries, arguing that their Zimdollar earnings were being eroded by inflation.

In a letter dated February 18, addressed to the Health Services Board (HSB)’s acting executive director Anglebert Mbengwa, the Zimbabwe Government Radiographers Association, the Zimbabwe Public Health Association, Zimbabwe Health Workers Union and the Zimbabwe Nurses Association (Zina) declared incapacitation.

“Reference is made to the above said subject that the health workers associations having the negotiation space closed for them for almost a year now have resolved to declare incapacitation of its members,” the unions said in their joint letter.

Civil servants have rejected government’s recent salary offer of a 20% increase, US$100 and other non-monetary benefits. They are demanding a pre-October 2018 salary of US$540 or its equivalent in local currency.

They added: “Non-claimable health sector specific allowances agreed in the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) 2 of 2018 that is on-call, call out/standby night duty, nurse managers and special health allowances have not been reviewed for two years now. Need we remind the employer that these allowances are based on work done during odd hours with little compensation offered by the employer.

“COVID-19 risk allowances were last reviewed in 2020 and as such are now very negligible considering the exposure of health workers during this pandemic. Health workers never stopped reporting for duty even when most public servants were at home.

“These allowances ceased in 2020 and have now contributed to the en masse exodus of health workers. There is little incentive to continue going to work in the health sector. Vehicle loan scheme … was agreed upon in CBA1 of 2019 and it was unilaterally stopped by the employer. 20% cost of living adjustment… made in February 2022 provided little relief to the socio-economic status of the health workers.”

Health worker unions have previously complained that their parent ministry headed by Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga had closed communication channels and imposed tough conditions to stop them from engaging in job action.

In May 2021, government gazetted new provisions under the Health Services Act which sought to bar nurses and doctors from going on strike for three continuous days.

Under the measures, emergency services such as intensive care unit and casualty services should not be interrupted. This means that nurses and doctors assigned to those units could not go on strike.

HSB chairperson Paulinus Sikosana yesterday, however, said the workers’ grievances had been addressed.

“Their issues have been addressed,” Sikosana told NewsDay.

Health deputy minister John Mangwiro’s mobile phone rang unanswered while Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa said she was in a meeting last night.

Health ministry spokesperson Donald Mujiri was also not answering his phone.

The health workers said they were not on strike, but incapacitated to report for duty.

“We are not on strike. We have duties as health workers and these duties are strenuous and those duties for some time health workers were subsiding government. It is the responsibility of government to make sure that healthy workers are taken care of,” Zina president Enock Dongo said.

Zimbabwe Professional Nurses’ Union president Robert Chiduku added: “Government has ignored health workers for the past two years and that constitutes negligence on the part of government. The way forward is for the government to pay US dollar salaries to healthcare workers.”

The latest strike action came at a time when the sector had been hit by a mass exodus of health professionals to countries such as the United Kingdom, South Africa, Botswana and Australia.

Health experts said the job action by health workers would have “serious repercussions on ordinary people’s health”.

“Health workers accept that they should not put their patients at risk by engaging in industrial action, but they also feel strongly that there must be a speedy, fair and impartial procedure for resolving disputes. Long-standing grievances simply should not be allowed to build up,” Community Working Group on Health executive director Itai Rusike said.

“The withdrawal of night duties could have serious repercussions on ordinary people’s health, including avoidable and preventable deaths.  We call upon nurses and the government to engage in a serious and honest dialogue for the sake of the suffering patients.”

In 2018, Chiwenga fired thousands of nurses who went on strike following a salary deadlock. Newsday.

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