14 December 2013

Zambia: Was the Nurses' Strike Necessary?

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Beyond the News returns this week and after nearly a month of recess, the column is anchored by a new author, relishing the privilege of interacting with all the dear followers of this file.

One topic that has been in the Zambian spotlight, widely televised across the print and electronic media, over the past few months is the strike action by health workers at several of the country's health institutions.

In early October 2013, nurses and midwives at the country's highest referral sanatorium, the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) in Lusaka downed tools, demanding better improved conditions of service.

This was barely a month or two after Government had effected a 150 per cent collective salary hike for civil servants across the country.

With this in mind, why then would the nurses and midwives choose to go on strike with the full knowledge that any profession or field, in which you work, must be addressed with utmost commitment and a noble, selfless attitude to duty?

Nursing and midwifery are no different; in fact it boggled my mind to see a few individual, find it comforting to step away from their duty at a time when some patients are battling for their lives.

Following several assurances from the ministry of Health and indeed the Head of State, Michael Sata, the nurses and midwives resumed work after a two-day stoppage.

Well, all was calm and back to normal, assurances and commitments were made, only the best possible way out promising a win-win situation for all involved.

But in what could be described as an unfortunate turn of events, towards the month end of November, the nurses and midwives were at it again, striking for the second time in a period of less than one month.

The health workers were now demanding a salary hike of up to 200 per cent.

Prior to the 2011 general elections, the then Rupiah Banda led Government experienced similar challenges as nurses demanded for a salary hike that was viewed as rather exorbitant.

If a nurse was granted a take home wage of K10, 000 per month as suggested, what then would other public workers like teachers demand; they too are important to the nation.

It could be from this background that after issuing several warnings, the Government has relieved over 150 nurses and midwives for their participation in the strike.

The affected nurses and midwives are from UTH, Levy Mwanawasa General Hospital in Lusaka and Ndola Central Hospital.

The then Government did not bow to the nurses demands, it's not right that one section of the public workers should be granted a salary hike amounting to nearly

3 per cent of the national Budget.

Section 107 of the Industrial Relations Act cap 269 bars, any person who is engaged in an essential service such as nursing and midwifery from going on an indefinite strike.

Further, Section 12 disciplinary code of the public service states that any person who incites others to go on strike is liable to summary dismissal.

It makes sad reading to hear Government officials blaming the labour movement for not availing their membership this information.

Yes the labour movement has not fully played its role, and Zambia Union of Nurses Organisation (ZUNO) and Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), are to blame for the dismissal of 150 nurses who participated in the strike.

On the other hand, the Federation of Free Trade Unions (FFTUZ) and the Zambia Federation of Employers (ZFE), have commended Government for the action after the nurses' strike.

But one will agree; yes! Professionals must be loyal and selfless to duty.

However, loyalty alone without its fruits will not put bread and butter on the table.

If Government had earlier pledged and promised to meet the nurses' demands by increasing salaries by 200 per cent, well then the health workers had justification for their actions.

Nevertheless, public strike actions are not the best way out as there is always room for dialogue.

Today, the individuals who participated in the strike action have been dismissed from work and are now faced with uncertainty of whether they will be considered for the jobs after government asked them to re-apply.

Families, to whom such people were bread winners, are left with the prospects of sturdy times financially, as the income they depended on, could be no more.

A jobless life, some would say is an opportunity for one to recount other avenues for self sustainability and a nurse of midwife, can or may establish their privately run health post.

But this also requires money and a stable income flow as the facility will require to be maintained with the availability of learned staff and operating equipment.

Thus, having assumed government on the premise of being a pro-poor and listening administration, the Patriotic Front (PF) should may-be, re-think their decision of firing the workers for the sake of job sustainability.

Zambia is a country that is grappling with high unemployment, and sending these people on the street, even if replacing them with other, will not change a thing.

It is just like spilling water from a cup and re-filling the cup with the same water, from a same source again.

At this juncture, Government and the nurses, through their representatives, should stop playing the blame game.

Serious dialogue on the matter should resume for the sake of industrial harmony in the country.

This will also help Zambia set a trend of resolving labour matters administratively and cautiously, proving that the country is a beacon of peace even in areas where amity is viewed as a feather in a birds nest.

Not that it would be depriving them of their democratic right, but leaders in the opposition and other Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), should allow for Government and the labour unions address the issue at hand confidentially.

For comments write to jameskunda91 AT gmail.com, or Mobile: 0964317110/ 0973182006

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