Striking Health Workers ‘Won’t Take Pay for February’

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Health and Social Welfare Minister, Dr. (MD) Walter T. Gwenigale, has announced that no employees of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare will receive their salaries at the end of February.

Dr. Gwenigale, who did not say when workers would take their pay, stated that he had requested the Ministry of Finance not to process the ministry's February 2014 payroll “until the [Ministry’s] personnel director [James Beyan] can send a list of workers who are still working in their places of assignment.”

He disclosed that his Monday, February 17,  action had been approved by his boss, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whom, according to him, he had met with earlier in the day to brief her about the statements he would later make. He added that she had sanctioned them.

“So the Oldma [President Sirleaf] is punishing the good and the bad?” an employee of the Health Ministry remarked in the audience as Dr. Gwenigale spoke. 

The Health Minister made the statement against the backdrop of members of the National Health Workers’ Association of Liberia (NAHWAL) beginning a strike across the country Monday.

Speaking further, Dr. Gwenigale told the health workers who decided to lay down their tools and their leadership that “the strike action they have started is illegal and are asked to return to work immediately.”

The Health and Social Welfare Minister instructed all directors and supervisors to take attendance and “keep accurate records of all who are coming to work and those who have chosen to stay away.”

Minister Gwenigale: “Starting today, no one will be paid for days they have not worked.”

He also disclosed that he had asked Liberia National Police Director C. Clarence Massaquoi to help protect other health workers who might want to go to work but would possibly be prevented by those on strike.

The Health Minister said any health worker who physically blocks another from taking care of patients, or blocks access to care for patients should consider himself/herself dismissed from the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and their professional license to practice in Liberia instantly revoked.

“The Police are requested to arrest the offending person and turn him/her over to the Ministry of Justice for prosecution,” he ordered.

“Any health worker who fails to report back to work by February 21, 2014 should consider himself/herself dismissed from the Ministry and must re-apply if he/she wants to work for the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare again,” the Health Minister concluded.

MOH Personnel Director, James Beyan, quoted Title 18, Section 4506 of the Labor Law of Liberia: “It shall be unlawful for any officer of employee of the Government of the Republic of Liberia or any agency thereof to participate in any strike against the Government of the Republic of Liberia or any agency thereof or to be a member of any labor organization which asserts the right to strike against the Government of the Republic of Liberia or any of its agencies.”

The heads of the Liberian Medical and Dental Council (LMDC) and Liberian Board for Nursing and Midwifery also read separate statements calling on the health workers to abandon their strike. Both bodies, which accredit health practitioners, had said in strongly worded statements that they do not support any action that would endanger the lives of patients.

However, Dr. John K. Mulbah, Chairman of LMDC, appealed to the National Legislature, the MoSHW and other relevant agencies to quickly resolve the issues causing health workers to resort to such mass action.

Reacting to the Health Minister’s statement, Mr. Joseph Tamba, president of the National Health Workers Association of Liberia (NAHWAL), told the Daily Observer, the association no longer  recognized Minister Gwenigale as the Minister of Health and Social Welfare.

“We have made our positions known to the Government. Until Minister Gwenigale, Dr. Bernice Dahn and Cllr. Vivian Cherue step down and leave the Ministry, we won’t enter into any negotiation with any government officials,” Tamba stressed.

Dr. Dahn and Cllr. Cherue are two principle deputies to Dr. Gwenigale.

Tamba also stated that they were not moved by Min. Gwenigale’s threat of dismissal, adding: “If he’s able to dismiss more than 8,000 health workers around the country, then let him go ahead. We remain resolute in our decision. All we need is for the government to address our concerns.”

NAHWAL’s leadership had released an eight-count resolution nearly two weeks ago outlining their demands, including their calls for the resignation of the key figures at the Ministry of Health. They had also said the US$55 “illegally” deducted from some health workers’ pay should be replaced and the US$100 salary increment for all health and social welfare workers take effect as of fiscal year 2013/14.

As the Minister was addressing the press, there were reports filtering in that the strike action had already begun having adverse effects on ordinary Liberians unable to afford fees for private health facilities.

Our correspondents in Nimba and Bong Counties called in to say health facilities, including the hospital in Sanniquellie and C. B. Dunbar and Phebe, both in Bong County, had been abandon by health workers.

Some of the health workers have consistently said that while it is true that they might be violating their ethics, they can’t afford to keep protecting ethics to the detriment of their families.

Last year, at least two or three days after health workers had laid down their tools; reports began filtering in of abandoned patients dying. There were more than five cases of death reported.  

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