Health workers in Uganda strike over pay disparities and unkept promises

A strike by allied health workers in Uganda has led nurses and physicians to announce industrial action too in case the government fails to live up to its promises of increasing salaries

May 25, 2022 by Peoples Health Dispatch
Uganda allied health workers strike
(Photo: Twitter)

Approximately 30,000 allied health workers in Uganda downed their tools on May 16 in protest against a planned salary reform that would reaffirm pay disparities between different health professions. During the announcement of the strike, health workers warned about low salaries and failure to be fully absorbed in public service, in addition to the the disparities. 

The strike is still ongoing and workers have expressed their determination to keep going until President Yoweri Museveni commits to address their grievances. The action has had a serious impact on the delivery of health services, including postponements of operations and non-emergency procedures. Skeleton teams of allied workers continue to provide care during the strike, ensuring that emergency cases are properly cared for.

Denis Bukenya from the People’s Health Movement (PHM) Uganda confirmed that the health workers’ strike has greatly affected the already ailing health service delivery in the country. “But the health workers have been forced to cope with poor pay and poor working conditions, and their action does not come as a surprise,” he said.

The strike was organized by the Uganda Allied Health Professionals’ Association (UAHPA), an umbrella organization that brings together 30 professional associations, including those of medical clinical officers, clinical psychiatrists, laboratory scientists, radiologists, and dental technicians. The health workers, who make up 65% of the 57,000 strong total health workforce, are “tired of waiting,” said Patrick Dennis Alibu (UAHPA) at the press conference where the strike was announced.

Alibu stressed that allied health workers carry a significant bulk of the workload in the health system, yet are disregarded by the government. The recent announcement of a salary reform that fails to bring a more substantial rise in income for allied health workers has once again reaffirmed that disregard. Workers warned that while they were the ones ensuring delivery of healthcare, their pay scales received minimum attention, leaving their income far below adequate.

Low salaries and bad working conditions are among the main drivers of health workers’ emigration, which further undermines the public health system, Bukenya told People’s Health Dispatch. “They also have a negative impact on the health workers’ motivation, and by doing that they undermine the quality of care they are able to provide,” he points out.

On the same day when allied health workers began to strike, the Uganda Nurses and Midwives Council threatened to embark on a strike of their own if the government failed to live up to the promise of increasing salaries from July this year. Only a couple of days later, on May 19, physicians from the Uganda Medical Association did the same, citing doubts about the government’s readiness to implement the pay hike that was announced for the next financial year.

Nurses and physicians both staged strikes in 2021 in an attempt to secure much-needed raises and other rights. Their pressure contributed to the government agreeing to an increase of salaries, but the government’s behavior since then has left plenty of room for doubts on whether the agreement will be honored.

“The likelihood of further strikes in Uganda is high because the economy is crumbling,” said Bukenya. The expansion of industrial action to other groups of health workers would lead to additional strain on the health system, increasing the stakes for the government. In order to give due recognition of the health workers’ efforts and to avoid a situation where delivery of care is brought into question, PHM Uganda is calling for fair payment of all health workers.

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