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Chiwenga instills order, discipline in long-troubled health sector

ZIMBABWE Government wants to outlaw industrial action by health workers through amendments to the Health Services Act, as Health and Child Care Minister Constantino Chiwenga asserts his military-style authority in a sector that only last year threatened to throw the nation into turmoil.

Chiwenga, a former commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, is also the State Vice President but was appointed Health Minister last year to deal with the turmoil caused by endless strikes and the alleged abduction of a medical doctor.

On Friday, the government gazetted new provisions under the Health Services Act whereby nurses and doctors cannot go on strike for a continuous three days. Nurses and doctors should also give two days’ notice before going on strike, the provisions state.

However, even if they go on strike, emergency services such as intensive care unit (ICU) and casualty services should not be interrupted. This means that nurses and doctors assigned to those units, essentially, cannot go on strike.

“The health service shall be deemed as an essential service referred to in section 65 (3) of the constitution; and no collective job action whether lawful or unlawful shall continue for an uninterrupted period of 72 hours or for more than 72 hours in any given 14-day period; and notice of any collective job action must be given in writing 48 hours prior to the commencement of such collective job action,” reads the proposed law.

The law also seeks to criminalise inciting industrial action. If a representative of workers pushes for industrial action and is found guilty of any wrongdoing they could be jailed for up to three years.

“Any individual who is a member of the governing body of any trade union or representative body of members of the health service which incites or organises any job collective action contrary to subsection 2(b) or (c) shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding level 10 or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding three years or to both such fine and such imprisonment,” the law says.

Government sources said the new amendments seek to align health workers under “essential services” providers such as the police and army who cannot go on strike. However, others see Government’s proposed laws as too harsh. This is despite that nearly all first world countries outlaw strikes by nurses and doctors in public hospitals, fire fighters, critical ambulance staff, among others such as security forces.

The International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) 2021 global rights index says Zimbabwe is among 10 of the worst countries in protecting workers’ rights.

“Zimbabwe remained one of the most hostile countries in the world for trade unionists as Zanu-PF — the ruling party — called the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) — the main trade union organisation in the country — a ‘terrorist organisation’,” it says in a report.

The report noted how unfairly the government treats health workers.

“Instead of opening dialogue, the government ordered the arrest of 13 nurses. They have since been released on bail, but all have been dismissed. Strikes continued for 33 days without a return to negotiations,” reads the ITUC report.

Last year health workers brought services to a standstill in public hospitals when they embarked on a nationwide strike. They demanded salaries in US dollars and personal protective equipment (PPE) during the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • (With input from TimesLIVE)

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