January 5, 2007

2007 kicks off with strikes

Zimbabwean employees marked the first week of 2007 by taking industrial action for better pay, against the background of inflation that continues to hover around 1.000 percent.
Hundreds of patients were left stranded during the Christmas holiday period as junior doctors in public hospitals across the country went on strike to press for better salaries and working conditions, while the power supply was disrupted in the capital, Harare, when Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) employees decided to stay away from work. The employees of ZESA, a parastatal company that is the sole power supplier, were demanding a salary increment of 1.150 percent to cushion themselves against the prevailing inflation rate.

The resulting power outages lasted for at least three hours, affecting communication services in the busy capital and forcing dimly lit shops, including clothing retail outlets selling school uniforms, to operate without being able to issue receipts. The lowest-paid ZESA employee, said the unions, earned about US$91 a month, hardly enough to rent a single room in a modest suburb. Many skilled staffers have opted to migrate in search of better salaries. In December, the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe reported that the cost of living, including non-food items like transport and rent, amounted to just over US$800 a month for an average family of six.

Junior doctors, who earn about US$223 a month, were demanding a monthly salary of around US$19.000. Most people are struggling to survive in an economy characterised by hyperinflation, unemployment of more than 70 percent and biting shortages of foreign currency, basic commodities, fuel and electricity, as well as a shrinking industrial base.

Nurses have been overwhelmed by the numbers of people seeking assistance at the Harare and Parirenyatwa hospitals in the capital, and the Mpilo and United hospitals in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, which are the country's four main referral centres and used by most people because they are more affordable than private institutions.
A notice in one casualty reception area announced the junior doctors' the strike and said only emergencies would be attended to.

For almost a decade, Zimbabwe has suffered a debilitating brain drain of health and other skilled personnel who have migrated to other countries for better salaries and working conditions. The Health Services Board released statistics in late 2006 showing that major referral centres were operating without key medical staff. Of a required 145 senior doctors, only 36 were available in the country, while only 72 instead of the necessary 189 specialist consultants were left in Zimbabwe. The board said there was a deficit of up to 89 percent of state-certified medical laboratory technicians and a 44 percent shortfall of state-certified nurses, while there were 19 percent too few sisters-in-charge for supervising nurses at major health centres.

One of the striking doctors, speaking anonymously, said although they sympathised with the patients, withholding their services was the best way to push the government to improve their working conditions. "We don't wish to harm the patients because that is against the principles of our profession. It is unfortunate that the government, every year, does not want to heed our grievances until we go on strike," the doctor said. "We are living like paupers, and most of the time we are stuck in transport queues on our way to work."
The Zimbabwe Medical Association (ZIMA) described the industrial action by doctors as "sad", and urged the government to find a lasting solution to the plight of medical practitioners. "Doctors strike every year ... [over] the same grievances. There is a need for a medium- to long-term strategy to resolve this recurrent problem, because whenever doctors withdraw their services, the consequences are undesirable and services are disrupted," ZIMA secretary-general Tapiwa Bwakura said. "Doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians and pharmacists are already thin on the ground due to a massive brain drain, and the sooner we resolve our problems, the better." According to him, Zimbabwe had been receiving doctors from Cuba and the Democratic Republic of Congo to fill in the gaps left by those departing for greener pastures, but the government needed to improve conditions to help retain local professionals who were familiar with the country. The expatriate doctors usually faced communication problems because they could not speak indigenous languages, while their English, the main official language, was basic. (IRIN)

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