Zimbabwe’s vice president this week ordered the sacking of 16,000 nurses who had gone on strike. The nurses and rights groups have condemned the move and are calling for better conditions in the country's hospitals.
"Government has decided in the interest of patients and of saving lives to discharge all the striking nurses with immediate effect." That was the statement signed by Zimbabwean Vice President Constantino Chiwenga. With this he announced the sacking of 16,000 nurses who were striking over wages and working conditions in the health sector.
Chiwenga, who made this statement on Zimbabwe's 38th independence anniversary, went on to accuse the nurses of striking for politically motivated reasons.
The Zimbabwe Nurses Association issued a statement saying that they had taken note of Chiwenga's order, but that the striking nurses had not yet received any letters from their direct employer, the Health Services Board.
"We really feel short changed by our minister. All that nurses are asking is that the hospitals should be equipped with modern equipment, to have resources to use in the hospital. Nurses are asking for a risk allowance, which is reasonable," argued Enock Dongo from the nurses association. The association also noted that the vice president had, in response to the strike, promised to transfer over $17 million (€14 million) to the Ministry of Health. This money would, however, only cover salaries and allowances that had not been paid since 2010.
Rights groups and trade unions outraged
The announcement caused widespread outrage from unions, worker's associations and Zimbabwean human rights groups and activists. On Wednesday, activists placed petition boxes in public spaces on the streets of the capital Harare.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights issued a joint statement condemning the government action, stating that every employee had the right to strike, as well as the right to satisfactory working conditions. They also pointed out that it was irresponsible of the government to employ inexperienced or retired nurses who may not be able to provide the required health services.
Whether the sacking of the 16,000 nurses was legal or not can only be determined by a court of law, points out Rosalyn Hanzi, who heads Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. "I think the main concern for us is how the government has handled this issue. If there was any breach at all by the nurses, whether they went through the right procedures or not, this should have been taken up by their employers, not by the executive," said Hanzi. "So the main concern is that the government is using the situation of the nurses as an example to prevent civil servants from going on strike, who now will be fearing that they can fire them at any time."
The Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe told local journalists that the nurses had informed the government about their strike in advance and that they, the teachers' union, would not be intimidated by the treatment of the nurses. Similarly, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, a trade union umbrella organization, condemned the vice president's order.
In the meantime, patients at Harare's Central Hospital complained that they had been unattended for hours. "We have not been attended, we are waiting for doctors to attend to us. There are no nurses. We are not happy at all, we want qualified nurses to return to work,” Barbra Ndove, a mother with a 16 month-old baby told DW.
Tigere Agrippa, who went to the hospital with his 76-year-old father, complained that they had been waiting since early in the morning and that people were even being turned away. "The government is failing to pay the workers, they must pay the workers. That is the government's duty," he said.
According to Dongo from the nurses association, the lowest paid Zimbabwean nurse currently earns about $280 per month.
The grievances of the workers are genuine, in the view of Hanzi from the lawyers' association. Nurses work long hours and were not paid for months on end, she said. "For the nurses I think it's beyond the issue of salaries;" she said. "I think they're concerned about the general conditions in the hospital."
"For the vice president to say that the strike was politically motivated, I think he is just trying to see how he can shield this government from scrutiny and criticism," Hanzi added.
Zimbabwe's new guard with President Mnangagwa (c.) and his deputy Chiwenga (l.) are still testing the ground since their inauguration in November 2017
Stand-off in talks
Through its Twitter account, Zimbabwe's Ministry of Health called on nurses who are on leave to report to work immediately and retired nurses to send in their applications for the new openings.
Zimbabwe's minister of health, David Parirenyatwa, stated that the government was not planning to retract the sacking of the nurses. "Those who have been dismissed will need to re-apply if they want to come back to work," he said. "The ones who are on strike and re-apply, they will be taken. And the ones who are new, we will also absorb them. As you know, we were short of nurses anyway."
The nurses association has said that they would take the matter of the mass dismissal to court if the government does not budge in its stance.
Zimbabweans are due to go to the polls for general elections later this year. Since the ousting of former president Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe has seen an opening up of political space and debate.
Columbus Mavhunga contributed to this report.