Kenyan health professionals continue strike after governors refuse to sign agreement

Kenya’s nurses and clinical officers continue to be on strike as the second tier of government – the Council of Governors – has not signed the return to work formula agreed upon by the unions and the country’s health ministry

January 23, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
A protest by Kenyan health workers: File Photo by Christopher Kipsang/ The Standard Health

The strike by Kenya’s medical professionals continues due to the intransigence of the county governors, who are unwilling to sign the Return to Work Formula (RTWF) agreed between the unions and the health ministry.

As a result, the nurses have refused to call off their strike. The clinical workers, who had decided to end their protest action at the beginning of this year, resumed it from January 8. Doctors remain at work but their demands are in a limbo, and have expressed concerns about the disruptive role played by the second-tier of the government – the Council of Governors (CoG).

The nurses and clinical officers had gone on strike in 34 of the country’s 47 counties on December 7. They were demanding safer working conditions with adequate supply of PPEs, increase in risk allowance, compensation for families in case medics succumb to COVID-19 and comprehensive health insurance to ensure that they no longer have to pay out of their pockets in case they get infected on duty.

Addressing these concerns, the health ministry and the Kenya Union of Clinical Officers (KUCO) agreed on a Return to Work Formula (RTWF) on January 1, following which the clinical officers called off their strike.

Another RTWF between the health ministry and the Kenya National Union of Nurses (KNUN) promised that “All nurses who have been hospitalized and have paid their own bills due to the absence of comprehensive medical insurance cover shall be refunded.. by the employers within the two levels of government herein.” In addition, their risk allowance was to be hiked to Sh15,000 (USD 136.3)

However, Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya, in his capacity as the head of the Council of Governors (CoG) said recently, “Even if they go on strike for 100 years, I will not pay them more.” Disregarding the particular stress and risks faced by these health workers, he added that “They are paid more than other professionals.”

“Let us remind the world that our concerns have not been addressed to this end and that the Council of Governors.. [have] refused to sign the Return to Work Agreement,” KNUN tweeted on January 21, adding, “We advise our members to stay put until our Return to Work Agreement has been signed.”

Threatening to sack the striking medics, a number of county governments have sent them show-cause notices. “[T]he strikes in the health sector are labor disputes that should be handled through the established ILO conventions on dispute resolutions,” the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU) said last week.

“The sacking of health care workers for engaging in industrial action is detrimental to the health sector in our country due to the acute shortage of healthcare personnel, it is therefore illogical to employ a brinkmanship approach to the ongoing disputes,” the union has warned.

The doctors represented by the KMPDU had joined the strike on December 21, and returned to work after signing an RTWF on December 24. However, with the CoG refusing to implement it, the assurances on the basis of which they returned is now called into question.

“It is a shame that our health workers entered into an agreement with the Ministry of Health with a view to returning to work in line with industrial relations practice, only for (CoG Chair) Oparanya to disregard the agreement without consulting the national government,” said Francis Atwoli, the Secretary-General of Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU).

The unions have been calling on President Uhuru Kenyatta to intervene to resolve the impasse. However, in a radio interview, the president went on to say, “Letting people die as you watch and deny them medical care is first and foremost a sin against God.”

Dr. Stephen Mogusu, who died on the day the strike action started (December 7) after contracting COVID-19 from a patient he was treating in Machakos county, had said in his last Whatsapp message from deathbed, “My dear colleagues, let me take this opportunity to admonish you today to get your pay or get out while you can with your health and life intact.”

At the time of his death he was yet to receive salary for five months. With no medical insurance, his family was left with a bill of Sh 800,000 (USD 7,196).