The Liberian Senate on Tuesday, May 27, voted unanimously to cite the Minister of Health and Social Welfare to appear before that body on Thursday, May 29, 2014, and show cause why he should not be held in contempt for refusing to reinstate two “sacked” officials of the National Health Workers’ Association of Liberia (NHWAL).
The Senate Plenary’s decision to cite Health Minister Walter T. Gwenigale was taken during its 33rd day sitting, and followed verbal information from Lofa County Senator George Tengbeh that up to the time of the Senate’s sitting Tuesday, the Health Minister hadn’t yet reinstated NHWAL president Joseph Tamba and his secretary general George Williams.
Senator Tengbeh informed the plenary that there were rumors that health workers may again go on strike. “So I want to bring this to the attention of the plenary so that we can take action on this, that it will not be too late for us for us to act.”
In reaction to that news, the Senate Chairman on Gender, Health, Social Welfare, Women & Children Affairs, Dr. Peter Sonpon Coleman, recalled the crucial role the Senate played in getting health workers to go back to work, and reflected how the recent go-slow paralyzed the health system in the country.
“The workers decided to go back to work with the mandate that Minister Gwenigale reinstates all those who were affected; but unfortunately he reinstated the others, leaving out the president and secretary general. Two weeks ago, I approached the Pro Tempore [and told him] that it was critical when people have grievances, and they come to us, and this body plays a mediating role, the Minister of Health cannot go and [act unilaterally] .”
Senator Coleman disclosed that discussions have been held with Minister Gwenigale to try to rescind his decision, which has since failed to materialize.
“As we are sitting, there is a threat that soon if these people are not reinstated, they will go back to a go-slow; not only that — some of the grievances that were named by them, several have not been addressed. We want to state here Mr. Pro Tempore that according to the Minister, the Executive Branch of Government endorses his action.”
The Senator, who is also a medical doctor continued: “So if this is the case, then we have to take it up with the Executive. We cannot afford to sit here for our health system to be attacked again, or for the health system to collapse, especially after we just combated Ebola.., so I am begging the plenary to take some action, either the Minister be invited here before this plenary to tell us why he decided unilaterally to sack the two officials against the advice of the Liberian Senate.”
He said the Committee on Health had exhausted all efforts and it has reached a stage where he had to ask the Pro Tempore to engage the President on this issue.
For her part, Montserrado County Senator Geraldine Doe-Sherif cautioned her colleagues not to accept what the Minister is saying about the Executive endorsing his action; “because he made it clear when I chaired a six-hour long meeting at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center with him (Minister Gwenigale). He had told me emphatically that those health workers, who were the champions of their struggle were not going to be affected and that nobody was going to be dismissed; he gave us his word and I told him that if anything should happen, we will hold you responsible and we will bring you before plenary to show cause why we should not hold you in contempt.”
Grand Kru Senator Cletus Wotorson’s attempt to soften the tempo of the proceeding by taking a softer approach such as informing the Executive that its agents are not cooperating with the Legislature, failed to hold water.
In February, government health workers throughout the country went on strike over better incentives and demanding that their colleagues who have worked for years without salary be placed on payroll.
Following weeks of negotiations, the workers agreed to return to work, provided certain demands were met. Among them was that Minister Gwenigale signs a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that he would not threaten their colleagues and would reinstate 22 of their colleagues that had been dismissed.