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Health workers strike 20 times since 2012

A mini survey by The Observer has found that in the last five years, health workers have gone on strike at least 20 times in protest at poor pay and working conditions.

Most strikes had been localised in various districts and sometimes gone unnoticed but this ongoing countrywide strike is the first since 1996. The localised strikes would easily be crushed by government agencies or security informants like the residential district commissioners (RDCs). Nonetheless, they tell a story of a sector that has literally collapsed.

This means every year, at least four strikes involving health workers happen somewhere around the country. A medical doctor told us that the number would be high but “many health workers sometimes choose to suffer silently because of fear to be reprimanded.”

He added that unless it is a countrywide industrial action, many choose to stomach their grievances. The Observer has found that most of the strikes are about delayed pay. Some health workers worked for as many as six months without pay before they laid down  their tools.

For instance, in December 2015, health workers in Lyantonde hospital protested after they went five months without pay. The strike left hundreds of patients stranded without any assistance.

The health workers pleaded with government to at least give them a package to take them through the Christmas season.

In December 2016, health workers in Mbarara regional referral hospital put down their tools after they spent six months without pay.

Intern doctors have also demonstrated more than any other group, an indicator of a tumultuous relationship between government and this group, which actually helps fill up gaps in public health facilities that are under-staffed.

In 2016, the medical interns went on strike twice due to unpaid allowances and marched to parliament to demand that their grievances be heard.

In most of these strikes, health workers have been bulldozed back to work. In April last year, Jinja workers were threatened back to work. The current countrywide strike is a build-up that has been piling up over the poor conditions in the sector.

Dr Ekwaro Obuku, president of the Uganda Medical Association (UMA), said they have been struggling for better working conditions since 1996.

He said since then, there had never been a countrywide strike for health workers. However, the sporadic strikes that have been happening in different districts spoke to a failing system. He told The Observer in an interview last week: “We are talking about a sector that has collapsed.”

The continued strikes among health workers shows a clear lack of political will to solve the medical professionals’ issues.

Last year, President Museveni rejected a pay rise plea from doctors, instead promising them land where they could build a Sacco and start saving. He said the state needed to focus on strategic investments that need a one-time expenditure yet have an influence on the system.

“Educated people like you [doctors] must address these bottlenecks in a prioritised way. When we are discussing priorities, we need to focus on those that don’t need recurrent expenditure like salaries,” Museveni reportedly told health workers at a dinner organised by UMA.

POOR HANDLING

Almost all strikes have been handled with government officials threatening health workers to go back to work. On some occasions, the health workers have been promised to have their dues paid promptly.

In September last year, Health minister Jane Aceng denounced the medical interns in Mulago who called for a strike. She told parliament then: “Currently, the ministry of Health does not have any interns.

“The group that went on strike, we don’t know them. You only become an intern when you have been taken on.
“So before you are taken on, you are between a student and being taken on.”

Threats come from different officials, RDCs and district chairpersons being the main actors that threaten to sack striking medics.

On Thursday last week, Aceng called a press conference at 8pm at the ministry of Health offices in Wandegeya. He told journalists that the doctors’ strike was illegal and they should go back to work or be fired. The doctors refused.

On Monday, Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda twitted that “Cabinet had established a committee to engage doctors to bring the industrial action to an end.”

PLACE

MONTH

REASON FOR STRIKE

Mbarara referral hospital

October 2012

Delayed pay

Jinja referral hospital

August 2012

Delayed pay

Mulago referral hospital

December 2012

Unpaid allowances

Kanungu district

July, 2013

Delayed salaries

Fort Portal hospital

May, 2013

Delayed pay

Kalangala district

March, 2014

Delayed pay

Kotido district

July 2014

Delayed pay

Soroti district

November 2014

Delayed salaries

Mbale medical interns

November 2014

Unpaid allowances

Mbale medical interns

May 2015

Unpaid allowances

Mulago interns

May 2015

Unpaid allowances

Lyantonde district

December 2015

Salary non-payment

Jinja hospital

April 2016

Doctor’s arrest

Mulago hospital interns

May 2016

Unpaid allowances

Mulago hospital interns

September 2016

Unpaid allowances

Kagadi district

September 2016

Delayed Salaries

Mbarara referral hospital

December 2016

No pay for six months

Mbarara referral hospital

April 2017

Delayed pay

Mulago interns

April 2017

Unpaid allowances

Countrywide

November 2017

Salary enhancement, duty facilitation allowance, and call to include interns in public service structure.


amwesigwa@observer.ug

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd