Health perks talks crumble

Health perks talks crumble


alawi is on the brink of a health catastrophe following the collapse of talks between healthcare representatives and government on a new collective pay agreement.

The health workers—led by the National Organisation of Nurses and Midwives (Nonm) and Physician Assistants Union of Malawi (Paum)—said yesterday they will proceed with industrial strike, saying government has failed to provide feedback to the workers regarding their pay package grievances within the agreed 14 days, which ended on Tuesday.

The health workers’ representatives have also rejected a meeting that Capital Hill convened on the matter yesterday and are instead working on dates for the industrial protests.

Chikumbe: They are aware of the law

A letter dated May 15 2024 that we have seen addressed to Paum and Nonm by Ministry of Health Principal Secretary for Administration James Manyetera invited the two bodies’ leaders to the meeting ostensibly to give progress on the agreement.

The invitation was also extended to lead conciliator of the deal who is also Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) executive secretary Habiba Osman.

It reads: “I write with reference to the conciliation settlement agreement of February 13 2024, and subsequently the meeting which your organisation had with the Minister of Health on April 30 2024.”

But Nonm president Shouts Simeza and Paum president Solomon Chomba in a joint letter dated May 15 2024 said the ministry should provide an official written response or update to both organisations as is tradition in conciliation.

Through the letter, Nonm and Paum also vowed to proceed with their plans to stage a nationwide sit-in in the absence of the feedback that Minister of Health Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda had promised.

“We would also like to formally note that the proposed meeting falls beyond the 14-day period agreed upon during the round table discussion held with the minister on April 30 2024. Consequently, Nonm and Paum will proceed with their plans.

“Through this letter, we convey our position through the conciliator of our decision to await a written response from the ministry, as opposed to further meetings, which have been ongoing since December 2023. Unfortunately, without resolution,” reads the letter.

In an interview yesterday, Chomba said a resolution to begin industrial action was made during a meeting held on Wednesday with Nonm representatives.

He said: “In light of the current circumstances, Nonm and Paum have resolved to commence an industrial action. Further details and dates will be communicated. We are resolute on our decision since the discussions mean no difference.”

But in a written response yesterday, Ministry of Health spokesperson Adrian Chikumbe expressed hope that there will be continued engagement.

He cautioned against the decision to strike, saying: “Their leaders are aware that Section 47 of the Labour Relations Act, pertaining to Dispute Settlement at work place, prohibits essential service providers such as health workers from conducting a strike.

“We, therefore, expect their leadership to advise the workers properly so that they don’t get caught up on the wrong side of the law. We are hopeful that we will continue to engage in lawful dispute settlement procedure as provided for in the laws of Malawi.”

Commenting on the impasse, Catholic University of Malawi Vice-Chancellor Ngeyi Kanyongolo, an associate professor of law, said the only remedy was for the healthcare workers to move the Industrial Relations Court for intervention.

She said: “The law provides that if conciliation has failed, the workers can take up the matter with the Industrial Relations Court. That’s the next course of action, and then the court will provide guidelines.”

Evidence from the October 2001 strike indicates that at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) only the burns and orthopaedic wards attended to patients.

Writing on reflections at QECH in a 2003 article for the United States’ National Library of Medicine, Kamuzu University of Health Sciences professor of public health and epidemiology Adamson Muula said both the Malawi Government and the health workers should have learned from the 2001 strike experience that saw volunteer staff, comprising the Malawi Red Cross Society members and nursing and medical students, desperately trying to provide services in the absence of striking permanent staff.

Also in April 2020, doctors and nurses in Blantyre staged a sit-in to push government to meet their demands on protective equipment amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Through Nonm and Paum, healthcare staff gave government an April 12 2024 deadline to implement the revised allowances, but government said it would respond by April 26 2024. However, the response did not come; hence, the decision to proceed with the protest.

Besides agreeing to a 15 percent salary increment, government committed to increase locum rates,  professional and risk or medical allowance, as well as top-up.

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