A legal showdown is looming between Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga (pictured below), who doubles as Health minister, and public hospital nurses, with the health professionals vowing to continue fighting him in the courts if he insists on them returning to fulltime shift work despite last Friday’s High Court order barring him from doing so.
Nurses in public hospitals and clinics early this month approached the High Court, through the Zimbabwe Nurses Association (ZNA), seeking an interdict against Chiwenga’s directive for the removal of their flexible working hours, commonly referred to as flexitime.
Flexitime was introduced as a result of a collective bargaining agreement in January 2019 to allow nurses and doctors to report for duty two or three times per week in view of their low remuneration, but Chiwenga, upon assuming the position of Health minister, scrapped the arrangement, prompting the nurses to seek legal recourse.
High Court judge Justice Martin Mafusire agreed that the nurses had raised valid concerns relating to incapacitation and lack of personal protective equipment for Covid-19, hitting out at Chiwenga saying he acted against the spirit of fair negotiation by unilaterally ordering an end to flexitime.
However, subsequent to the ruling, indications from the ministry, which have courted the ire of nurses, are that government has no intention of maintaining flexitime and that nurses who were removed from the payroll for disobeying the vice-president’s directive “will have to get their salaries from the court”.
The Health Services Board (HSB) this week confirmed it removed about 1 200 nurses who had defied Chiwenga’s directive from the payroll and they have not received their salaries for November.
ZNA president Enock Dongo said they were preparing another legal challenge against Chiwenga if the nurses are not put back on the payroll.
“The minister, the permanent secretary and our employer the Health Services Board were barred from carrying out suspensions and removal of our nurses from the payroll, yet we still have some nurses who are on suspension. Over 1 200 nurses were removed from the payroll and as far as the judgement is concerned, they were barred from doing that and we expect government to respect judgment and do as was said by the court,” Dongo said. “We are aware of those statements (that they will not pay); we are waiting for them to put them in writing so that we can take it back to the court because that is clearly a contempt of court. We will obviously go back to the court since we do not have any other remedy. What we have agreed and resolved is to follow the law. We wrote back to them when the court made its ruling but they have not responded to us.”
HSB corporate communications manager Tryfine Dzvikutu confirmed there were nurses who were removed from the payroll, but said the body would pay the nurses for the time they were at work.
“It’s not that they were punished; it was a labour related position of no work, no pay. Obviously, the way forward in terms of the ruling is to stand guided by the court. The nurses will be paid for time worked,” she said.
In its letter to Chiwenga, which was copied to the HSB, but was not responded to — according to Dongo — the ZNA said it was still keen to engage in dialogue with government.
“We believe the judgment is self-explanatory. In particular, it puts it beyond any reasonable doubt that your directive has been set aside and anyone is barred from implementing it. We reiterate that we look forward to working with you as we strive to improve the problems bedeviling the health sector,” the letter, dated November 20, reads.