Striking junior doctors overplayed their card

The year opened to a frenzy of negotiations between Government and its workers, some of which began last year. Yesterday, the Government and representatives of labour in the civil service met to discuss conditions of service.

As we report elsewhere in this issue, Government says it has a package it is ready to unveil at the next meeting with workers’ representatives.

The negotiations between Government and the civil service come in the midst of bitter engagement with some striking junior doctors.

Junior doctors went on strike on December 1 and have made a raft of demands, which have increasingly taken on a political tone than sticking to their welfare. They have even reneged on an agreement they reached with Government on Saturday night, despite the State bending over backwards to accommodate most of their demands.

Let’s put the negotiations between Government and labour into context. Every year this time, workers usually agitate for the betterment of their material lot — which is to be expected given the unlimited nature of human wants.

During this period, the gap between the wants and means appears to widen as many people would have overspent in the festive season. The current talks between Government and its workers are firmly rooted in this context and we imagine that the parties would want to see a quick end to this phase.

But the negotiations won’t go away just like that. Take the failed junior doctors’ talks, for example. The doctors came up with a raft of demands — up to 11 — and the Government met most of them.

The striking junior doctors have, however, stuck to their demand to be paid in US dollars.

Quite sensibly, the Government has put its foot down: none of its workers will receive any greenbacks. The Government does not print US dollars, and the nation is not ready for the domino effect of setting such a precedent with doctors.

The irony is that one of the demands by the junior doctors was medicines and Government is struggling to mobilise foreign currency to stock up hospitals. The doctors seem to be getting their priorities twisted. And logically, yesterday they shredded any deal which Government had made with them.

There is going to be a lot of discussion around the failed negotiations. The unfortunate thing is that the discussions will likely miss a key point. Negotiations between Government and its workers must be located within the larger context of reforms that are taking place in the economy and a key reference point is the Transitional Stabilisation Programme (TSP).

This blueprint, covering the period October 2018-December 2020, prioritises fiscal consolidation, economic stabilisation and stimulation of growth and creation of employment.

The plan prioritises the civil service, their conditions of work and the optimisation of resources.

The civil service under TSP is to be reformed with key focus on cutting the wage bill — which already has started to be implemented.

On this crucial point, the TSP states: “At the operational level, the reform of the civil service is targeted to change its existing orientation, structure, functioning, temperament, performance, efficiency and ethical base as the vital cog that is charged with the planning, implementation and improvement of national welfare and achievement of the development results and outcomes for all citizens.

“The pursuit of civil service reform is informed by and designed to address a wide range of policy, institutional, systems and performance-related challenges that characterise the existing civil service in Zimbabwe.”

Specific interventions cited in the TSP include the “reduced recourse to fiscal subventions by quasi-Government institutions” (lowering which could save Government US$60 million annually).

The civil service would also need cleaning relative to areas of overlap, duplication and non-essential services. Then the clincher: TSP notes; “The financial costs on the taxpayer of the large civil service are unsustainably high, as demonstrated by a wage bill constituting too high a proportion of total Government revenue. The wage bill constitutes 47 percent of total fiscal spending, compared to 30 percent for sub-Saharan Africa in 2016, and capital spending stands at 18 percent compared to 28 percent, respectively.” Something must be done.

We go back to the issue of Government’s negotiations with its workers.

The workers’ expectations must be tempered by reality of the challenges facing the nation as a whole. They cannot expect to be paid in US dollars they know the country does not have. It’s a demand made to be rejected and Government can’t be expected to promise what it cannot deliver on. It has thus been pushed against the wall.

Source : The Herald

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