Zimbabwe government threatens to sack more striking doctors

Junior and mid-level doctors in Zimbabwe’s government hospitals, whose monthly salaries have dropped from USD 1,800 per month to USD 80, have been on strike since September 3. 286 doctors have been fired

November 19, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
Zimbabwe doctors strike
Government doctors in Zimbabwe strike against the loss in the value of their wages.

Zimbabwe’s government has threatened to sack more doctors if they continue with the strike that began on September 3. The government has already dismissed 288 doctors so far. The striking junior and mid-level doctors are demanding the restoration of the value their salaries which have been lost over the last year, after the introduction of payment in the new RTGS currency by the government. 

The government initiated disciplinary hearings on November 1 against 80 of the striking doctors. On November 5, 77 of them were found guilty by the health services board and subsequently dismissed.

After this action failed to coerce the rest of the doctors to return to work, the board fired a further 134 doctors by November 8. Barring two doctors who were at the hearings, all the others were tried in absentia and “found guilty of absenting themselves from duty without leave or reasonable cause for days ranging from five or more,” according to a statement by the chairperson of the Health Services Board, Dr. Paulinus Sikosana. 

75 more doctors were fired by November 12, bringing the total number of those fired to 286. The health services board intends to hold disciplinary hearings against a total of 516 doctors.

It may be noted that the total number of doctors employed in the public sector in Zimbabwe is only 1,601 – with the government set to sack over half of them. This is despite the repeated insistence by the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA) that the doctors are not striking out of choice, but simply cannot afford the cost of reporting to work. 

When the payment of wages in USD was abandoned by the end of last year and the quasi-currency RTGS was introduced, the lowest earning junior doctor employed at a government hospital in Zimbabwe was getting the equivalent of USD 1,800 per month

However, with the steady decline of the value of RTGS vis-a-vis the USD (to which it was initially pegged at a 1:1 ratio), their monthly earnings dropped to an equivalent of USD 80 (about RTGS$ 1,200) last month. On such a meager income, the doctors find themselves incapable of affording the basic necessities, including the cost of daily transportation to and from work. 

Not only doctors, but the entire civil servant community in Zimbabwe has been suffering a similar plight over the last year. Since the introduction of payment in the RTGS currency, the monthly earnings of the lowest paid among the civil servants has dropped from an equivalent of roughly USD 475 to USD 30-40. 

While the Civil Service Apex Union – which represents a number of unions with a total membership of 230,000 civil servants outside the health sector – has been negotiating with the government for months, a resolution is not on the horizon.

The unions are demanding that the pay of the lowest paid civil servants be raised to RTGS$ 9,500, which is the current equivalent to USD 475 – the level from which their salary had dropped. To ensure that a further slide in RTGS value does not eat into their incomes again, unions also insist that this raised amount should be fixed to the inter-bank exchange rate of RTGS to USD. 

However, Zimbabwe’s information minister Monica Mutsvangwa has claimed that the “budget cycle is coming to an end and.. [it] is difficult to get additional resources from the current budget,” assuring that “a review in the cost of living (is) definite in 2020.”

According to the finance minister’s report titled “2020 Pre-Budget Parliamentary Consultation Meetings: October 30 to November 4 2019,” the government’s estimate of the total budgetary requirement for 2020 is RTGS$ 112 billion – which is significantly higher than this year’s RTGS$ 18 billion budget.

However, a mere RTGS$ 6 billion is estimated to be the required allocation for industry, which is in need of a massive boost. The Herald reported that another RTGS$ 14 billion is being considered for agriculture, and a mere RTGS$ 18 billion is estimated to be the requirement for the health ministry. This is way short of what is required to address the sector’s severe shortfall that has incapacitated the doctors and nurses.

In fact, over half of the budgetary allocation in this plan will go towards the security sector. Over 28% of the budget is set to go to the home affairs ministry, whose expenditure for next year is estimated to be RTGS$ 32 billion. This amount – earmarked for internal security – is even higher than the RTGS$ 25 billion estimated as requirement for the defense ministry, indicating that the government sees more threats from internal labor disturbances rather than from abroad.

Earlier this year, in the midst of brewing labor unrest, the Independent had reported that the home ministry acquired, “3,343 AK-47 rifles, 2,000 CZ pistols, 500 P1 pistols… 500 Mossbergs, 500 riot guns, 300 mortar tubes, 500 MAG, 300 SSG sniper rifles, 300 Dragunov, 100 RPG, 1,500 Tokarev and 22,948 AK magazines.”  

During the protests triggered by a 150% hike in fuel price in January, the police forces arrested over a thousand protesters, including minors. Over 80 people were injured with live bullets, and at least 14 killed. Most of the protests since then have also faced violent repression at the hands of the state authorities.