Bevan Musoko Features Correspondent
It has been two months now since junior medical doctors downed tools in protest over their salaries which they say are inadequate and working conditions which they say are poor.
The doctors had not exhausted all the internal grievance procedures prior to embarking on the strike.
This fact was confirmed by the Labour Court ruling which found that the industrial action was illegal.
The court ordered the doctors to resume their duties within 48 hours of its ruling on October 11, 2019, a ruling which they ignored.
Government has been feverish in engaging the doctors who have, however, remained steadfast that they would not return to work before resolution of their salary issues.
Government has, therefore, resorted to disciplining the doctors, which processes are already underway.
Section 65 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe provides that “except for members of the security services, every employee has the right to participate in collective job action, including the right to strike, sit-in, withdraw their labour . . . but a law may restrict the exercise of this right in order to maintain essential services.”
Pursuant to this constitutional provision, Statutory Instrument 137 of 2003 defines essential services as “any service the interruption of which endangers immediately the life, personal safety or health of the whole or any part of the public.”
SI 137 provides various penalties for violation of the regulation.
While Government is grappling with the doctors’ strike, nurses also declared incapacitation and said they would only report for work twice a week. Similarly, Harare City Council nurses have also joined in the industrial action.
Medical sector employees need to appreciate that it’s not them alone who are facing economic challenges. The rest of the civil service is grappling with the socio-economic difficulties. No one is spared. So it boggles the mind as to their determination to squeeze Government which is also mandated to provide adequate remuneration to all civil servants. Government cannot adopt a sector-specific approach to remuneration issues; it has a duty to all its employees, hence cannot award increments to one sector while ignoring other sectors.
What is undeniable and clear is that the prolonged industrial action has resulted in immense suffering for the majority of Zimbabweans who otherwise rely on public hospitals for medical care. Due to the ballooning of costs in the private healthcare sector, the majority of Zimbabweans rely on Government and church-run hospitals. The strike has hit at the very heart of these hospitals, leaving millions of Zimbabweans without access to medical care.
Even the massive strides made by Government in having a provincial and district hospital in every part of the country have suddenly been rendered ineffective as citizens cannot access medical care in these hospitals.
The prolonged strike has the following consequences:
It is the poor who are bearing the brunt of this labour impasse;
Some people have lost their lives
The striking doctors have opened themselves to criticism for prioritising their salaries at the expense of human life and alleviating suffering. This is a stinging critique given the vow to assist those in pain by all medical personnel;
Government, which has the public mandate to manage national affairs, has adopted a tough stance against the medical doctors.
This probably explains the on-going disciplinary processes despite Government having committed itself to dialogue on the matter;
The employer-employee relationship has been damaged
There is a political cost to Government from this strike. Governments are formed and sustained on the basis of the public mandate, hence, the continued strike chips away at public confidence in Government. From this angle, any Government would adopt a tough stance to protect the public interest of voters.
Striking medical personnel need to appreciate the economic challenges bedevilling the economy, which have severely incapacitated Government to pay market salaries.
As the Minister of Finance, Professor Mthuli Ncube has said austerity measures are bearing fruit such that by 2020, the economy’s capacity to adequately reward its employees would have improved.
In the meantime, all Zimbabweans need to pull in one direction until such a time that the economy has improved.
Doctors and nurses need to implement the ethos behind the medical practice based on it being a vocation: need to save lives and alleviate suffering.