Kenya’s doctors union said on Thursday a seven-week strike would continue as long as needed to secure demands on pay and conditions, ignoring a court ruling ordering a return to work in five days or jail for union leaders.
The strike, which began on December 5, has emptied hospital beds as relatives take patients to care for them at home and poses a challenge for the government in an election year, as it seeks to prevent other state workers taking action for higher pay.
Several thousand doctors and their supporters marched from the courts to the centre of Nairobi where leaders of the Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists and Dentists’ Union (KMPDU) refused the time limit placed by the court order.
“We are, you know… appalled by how long this strike has been mishandled by particularly the Ministry of Health, particularly now lately by a Cabinet Secretary who is very keen on frustrating every single effort, in fact I think that it his greatest wish that we should go to jail and that is an attitude that we as the doctors have completely rejected and I think for this process to be complete, we do not want to engage with him again. As a fact, I think he should just resign, or be sacked, he must go because we are not going to sit down and talk with people who are lying to the whole country when Kenyans are suffering,” Ouko Olunga, secretary general of the doctors union.
Justice Hellen Wasilwa had initially handed union leaders a suspended one-month sentence on January 12 after they defied a December ruling declaring the strike illegal. But she gave them a two-week period for negotiations to avoid jail.
In Thursday’s ruling she gave them another five days in which to end the strike or face contempt of court.
“So I will suspend this sentence further, so the doctors will not be going to jail today. They have five more days and these five days is not for negotiation in my view, it’s for calling off the strike because I am dealing with the case for contempt,” said Wasilwa.
Local newspapers have reported critically ill patients left unattended and published images of abandoned hospital beds after 5,000 members of the KMPDU — the only union representing doctors in government hospitals — began their walkout.
“Everyone who is coming to the table, first of all they come along, they come with very dirty hands, they negotiate their own documents, today you start a process to engage, you get to page 10, then the following day he comes with a different thing. I think we cannot treat this issue like that anymore because for 53 days, 99 percent of Kenyans are suffering; those who cannot access these private hospitals and then the private hospitals are keeping everyone hostage so as we are saying, if they are going to do that, then we are giving one week notice also,” Olunga.
The union is demanding the fulfilment of a 2013 agreement which it says awarded doctors a 150-180 percent pay rise on basic salaries, a review of working conditions and promotions criteria, as well as hiring of more staff in state hospitals.
The East African state’s government says it can only afford a 40 percent pay rise but would work to meet other conditions.
Lecturers at public universities launched a strike last week, a further headache to the government in the approach to presidential and parliamentary elections in August when President Uhuru Kenyatta will seek a second and final term.
“Two things, first, the government did sign a deal or did promise something to the doctors. It did not know it does not have money when it was signing this? Why did it sign it? Was it simply to kick the can down the road? We’ve seen this thing happen to teachers when they were promised something, it was withdrawn. Its happened to the lecturers, its happened to other clinicians. So it seems to be a strategy within government where when faced with the possibility of industrial unrest, they will sign anything simply to keep people quiet, but there is no intention of following through, but I think the wider issue is how do we run for example our health systems? Does it actually make sense for us to pay doctors this much?” said political commentator Patrick Gathara.
Doctors have clashed with riot police in street protests over the strike.