Zimbabwe’s Legislation takes away Health Workers’ Rights

The Zimbabwean government believes that doctors and nurses share the blame for the country’s declining healthcare. Health workers in the country frequently embark on strike actions because of poor health infrastructures and poor pay. Lawmakers have amended the health services law to address the incessant strike actions by the country’s health workers.

The amendment criminalizes any strike action by health workers that lasts longer than three days. The new law does not only seem ineffectual; the draconian law would further plunge the country’s healthcare. More doctors and nurses dissatisfied with the new law would leave the country. The brain drain in the country’s health sector will worsen, and ultimately Zimbabweans will be at the receiving end. 

The legislature should reverse the new law to save the country’s healthcare. President Emmerson Mnangagwa can also cut spending on the running costs of his office and cabinet to fund health infrastructures and workers’ demand for a salary increase. 

It is easy but unacceptable for the government to present the dire economic situation in Zimbabwe as an excuse to take away the protesting rights of health workers.

In 2018, the government paid health workers about $540 per month. Since the country’s economy worsened, many health workers now earn less than $100 per month. The government’s inability to meet its former financial commitments has caused a massive brain drain in Zimbabwe’s health sector. 

Health workers who have stayed to work in government hospitals protest poor pay by going on frequent strikes. The situation in the country needs urgent intervention. But not anything like the new health services law. 

The government must be willing to engage health workers to resolve their concerns. As a commitment to a diplomatic resolution, Zimbabwe lawmakers should commence an amendment of the new health services law. A harsh law like the new health services law deprives health workers’ right to protest poor working conditions and remuneration. 

The review of the law should restore the right of healthcare workers to demand better working conditions. Lawmakers need to involve health workers in the amendment process. It will help bring their perspectives into proper consideration. 

The government negotiating with the health workers while the law remains will put the professionals under unnecessary pressure. Such engagements with health workers are unlikely to yield a sustainable solution. 

The government must commit to improving health workers’ welfare over the coming years. For instance, the government could sign a memorandum with the labor unions of doctors and nurses. The signed agreement should state percentage increases in health workers’ salaries over the next five years. If such commitment is missing in new negotiations, the current seeming peace instilled by the new law would be short-lived. 

Since 2021, Zimbabwe has lost more than 4,000 health workers to the brain drain. Most of the doctors and nurses emigrated because of poor remuneration. Nurses in neighboring countries like Namibia and South Africa earn ten times more than their counterparts in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe needs to pay its health workers better. 

Zimbabwe complains about the lack of funds to pay health workers better, but the government can readjust its spending priorities to meet the demand. For example, for 2023, Zimbabwe budgeted $250m for the Office of the President and Cabinets, while the budget for the country’s health and child care stands at $977m. 

President Mnangagwa should cut down on the budgeted spending for his office to preserve access to quality healthcare for over 16 million Zimbabweans. The government can use the money saved through the president’s spending cut to fund an increment in the salary of health workers. 

Zimbabwe currently plans to spend 10.5 percent of its annual budget on health and child care. The percentage represents a 4.4 percent decrease from the country’s 2022 health budget. Zimbabwe should design subsequent budgets to meet its commitment to the 2001 Abuja Declaration of 15 percent health budgetary allocation. More allocation to health would provide necessary funds for health infrastructures and an increment in the salaries of health workers. 

Beyond the budget, the government must prioritize the health sector when it disburses allocated budgets to various agencies. As of September 2022, Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Care had reportedly spent only 42 percent of its annual budgetary allocation. Meanwhile, as of June 2022, the president’s office had overspent its budget by 10 percent.  

The disparity in budget performances for these offices suggests where the country’s priority lies. The health sector is crucial to the overall well-being of the citizens. As such, it should have the required funds to run efficiently. 

It is easy but unacceptable for the government to present the dire economic situation in Zimbabwe as an excuse to take away the protesting rights of health workers. If the government places the deserved premium on health care, it will save Zimbabweans from the danger that the new health services law portends. 

The government must reverse itself on the new law and approach the resolving of issues with health workers with diplomacy. A repressive law like the new health services law in Zimbabwe should not be allowed to set a terrible precedent that authoritarian leaders may replicate in their countries. 

David Adetula is a writing fellow at African Liberty.

Photo by AMISOM via Iwaria.