14 November 2017

Liberian Health Workers Threaten Nationwide Strike Over Delayed Salaries

Photo: Tami Hultman / AllAfrica
Excited student nurses (file photo).

Monrovia — Surveillance of diseases throughout the country is about to be halted - a move that would be very devastating to the country's feeble health sector.

FrontPageAfrica has been hinted that some 91 District Surveillance Officers are planning a mass strike action because the Ministry of Health has failed to pay them their incentives since the beginning this year.

The District Surveillance Officers (DSOs) are charged with the responsibilities of conducting active case search and making daily, weekly and monthly report on priority diseases in all communities in Liberia.

However, the DSOs throughout the country have resolved to start their strike action by first withholding their reports as an initial step to express their grief.

"The DSOs have reached an agreement to hold all surveillance reports usually sent to the MOH, National Public Institution of Liberia (NPHIL), WHO, Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other international health organizations in Liberia," a source informed this paper.

Without these first line workers, the impact of an outbreak could be highly consequential before they are called back or for a new team of surveillance workers to be trained and sent into unfamiliar terrains.

Their position puts them in danger given that they are the first ones who are sent out to investigate any disease outbreak in the country.

Responding to an FPA inquiry, the Director of Communications at the Ministry of Health, Sorbor George, admitted that the DSOs are being owed incentives as claimed.

He, however, begged that they remain calm as the issue is being worked on.

"It is true that we owe them 11 months' incentives; but we want to beg them to remain patient. We're already negotiating with the NPHIL and WHO to have their incentives issue resolved; so we beg them to be patient," George told FrontPageAfrica.

He, however, clarified that government does not owe all the DSOs. According to him, during the Ebola epidemic, some health workers who were not in the employ of the government were hired to beef up the strength of those were employed by government to curtail the epidemic, but emphasized that they must be patient as the Ministry is working to pay their incentives accrued over the past months.

But the DSOs are resolved remain firm on their planned action.

In a social media chat room conversations leaked to FrontPageAfrica, one DSO wrote: "Fellow comrades, our action this time around should not be compromised by big boy 1 & 2, and NPHIL because if we compromise this other action, then let's consider ourselves chopping spot for Ministry of Health.

$250x10= ... Even you guys would compromise this one, I personally would be the last to do so... "

Another DSO wrote: "Surveillance officers of Liberia, we should not be afraid of taking actions on something you should have benefitted from. Our action (withholding reports) will bring back their consciences. Let us please hold together so our children can be happy with us."

All health workers (who are employed with the Civil Servant Agency) are receiving both the Liberian dollars salary and the United States dollars incentive. DSOs are receiving the Liberian dollars salary but not the US dollars incentive. They receive L$20,000.00 which is equivalent to $165.00 USD per L$127.00 rate.

This newspaper gathered that upon their recruitment in 2015, DSOs were paid US$250 as monthly incentives by the WHO, but the payment stopped in December 2016 for the Government of Liberia to continue from there.

A source hinted this paper that the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) made available some funds for the payment of incentives for DSOs, but they have continuously been drilled around with empty promises.

It can be recalled that in 2014 efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak suffered a major blow after health workers demanding increased danger money for looking after patients with the disease began their threatened walkout.

The National Health Workers Association of Liberia (NHWAL) ignored government pleas to refrain from striking and urged its members to stay off work after midnight on Monday. The call to strike was for nurses, medical assistants, lab technicians and other health workers, but did not include doctors.

In November 2016, doctors threatened a go-slow action, in demand of their three months salary arrears.

The health sector keeps repeating errors of the past and it's failing to grapple with this situation. Building a resilient health sector, according to the government, has grabbed media headlines ever since the end of the World's worst Ebola outbreak.

Experts weighing in on the Ebola catastrophe have alluded that a broken-down and under-supported health system were factors that escalated the outbreak which killed thousands.

When the virus hit Liberia back in 2014, health workers were then expressing exasperations over delayed salary arrears. Later staged a go-slow and that even put attempts to respond to the early stage of the outbreak out of control.

But the Ministry of Health, despite significant allocations in the country's budget with support from international partners, continues to struggle in sorting out an efficient system to ensure the regular payments of health workers including doctors, who are already scarce in the country.

The Ministry of Health enjoys a lofty US$88,806,498 representing 12.4% of the National Budget.

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