Zimbabwe government hospital doctors have been on strike for the past 36 days, plunging the public health sector into deep crisis, which has led to the near-collapse of the health delivery system. But on Friday, a surprise meeting between the doctors and First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa managed to break the ice for discussion between government and the striking doctors. No deal was, however, brokered and, contrary to post meeting utterances by the first lady, the doctors have not gone back to work.
Our chief reporter, Everson Mushava (EM) managed to get hold of Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA) secretary general Mthabisi Bhebhe (MB) to get details of the outcome of the doctors’ engagement with the first lady and other issue relating to the strike. Below are excerpts from the interview.
EM: On Friday, your members had a meeting with First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa. What were the issues and what was the result of the meeting?
MB: She was pleading with us to go back to work while government looks into our problems and we felt it was a half-baked offer. She does not hold an official government position and like anyone else, she is just an interested party. We are directly employed by the Ministry of Health and if we have any disgruntlement, we know whom to approach. We cannot approach the President over promises made by the first lady. Yes, she has influence on him, but the proper channel is that she will have to direct our concerns to the Health ministry, which employs us. The Health minister should then take the issues to Cabinet and a decision is made, that is legally binding. The Ministry of Health manages everything about our concerns. It would have made more sense if the promise by the first lady was made by the President himself. Nonetheless, it was a good initiative that such a meeting occurred, but let me reiterate that no agreement was reached and the strike is still going ahead until our demands are met.
EM: One of your demands is to be paid salaries in United States dollars. Has government made a commitment to meet the demand before and what was the outcome?
MB: An agreement was made a long time back in 2014 that government would pay our on-call allowances at a rate of US$10 per hour, but steps to fulfil the agreement were never made. Between 2014 and now, government never talked about it. There was no commitment. Every year, we had an industrial action over the same issue. This year, however, is the longest we have been on strike; so far 36 days and the industrial action is still going on. There is no solution over old promises.
EM: Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga was tasked to resolve the issue. Have you met him in person to negotiate your demands since he was given the task?
MB: The VP never made an effort to meet us. We were negotiating with the Health Services Board. The HSB is our employer. It is responsible for our welfare and work conditions. Every decision regarding our issues is made by the HSB, which presents them to the Ministry of Health. The HSB is playing ground, this is where everything starts and ends and this is provided by the Health Services Act. The HSB is the governing body for all health workers, that is why we say negotiations should be done by the HSB as has been the case. It has the mandate to do so, but the problem has been the way it was handling the negotiations. We believe it was misrepresenting issues to the VP and trying to portray us as devils in this. The HSB has not been negotiating in good faith. We hold the HSB liable and responsible for the delay in resolving this industrial action. They decided to take us to court to force us to return to work without meeting our demands. It made the situation difficult for proper negotiations. We cannot negotiate when the other party is back-stabbing.
EM: Have you alerted the HSB of your reservations on the way it has been handling the issue?
MB: We told them that the way they were handling the issue was delaying rather than solving the problem in the health services. It was out of desperation that the doctors engaged in job action. The doctors had tried their best to have honest engagements with their employer, but the process and outcome were frustrating.
EM: President Emmerson Mnangagwa cut off his annual leave to reportedly attend to the crisis in the health sector. Has he made an effort to meet you?
MB: No, but we have met a lot of representatives from the President’s Office and the latest development was the meeting on Friday with the first lady.
Now there is something on the table, the ice has been broken and now the fighting spirit is no longer there. People want to negotiate. She has pacified the situation. The meeting helped a lot; people are getting to understand our grievances. Like I said before, the only problem is that she is not a government worker and cannot make legally binding decisions, which is the reason why we are still on strike. The first lady has done her part — she should now direct our concerns to our parent ministry to make concessions.
EM: Health minister Obadiah Moyo looked keen to negotiate with you and come up with a solution during the early days of your strike, what happened to his zeal and how are you going along with him?
MB: The minister is good with words and offers, but no tangible solutions. He was only appealing to us to go back to work with nothing, yet the situation in hospitals urgently needs redress. People cannot go back to work by word of mouth. We want concrete measures to bring long-term sanity to the health sector, not piecemeal solutions.
EM: There seems to have been a feeling that Chiwenga was using a hardline stance to negotiate with you. What do you think was the result of such actions?
MB: We were engaging with him through the HSB. We only got to know of his views through his utterances that gave us an impression that he was not interested in negotiations, but force. We thought the mood for negotiation had been abandoned. We felt provoked by his utterances where he described junior doctors as mere students. We believe his utterances were as a result of misrepresentations from the HSB. This is why we were glad when the first lady offered to get our side of the story. We had been demonised without anyone making an effort to understand our concerns.
EM: Right now, government has appealed to student doctors to apply for jobs to fill in the vacancies left behind when it made an undertaking to suspend you. Is such a move legal?
BM: It is not procedural. That is why even the student doctors rejected the offer, a move that forced the first lady to get involved. They invited students who just finished school, whose results are not yet out. The ministry was trying to recruit doctors who have not passed their examinations.
Furthermore, we are all on one page, senior, junior and student doctors. We have similar demands.
— The Standard