Kenya's striking doctors dig in after court jails union officials

A riot policeman stands guard as doctors chant slogans after their case to demand fulfilment of a 2013 agreement between their union and the government that would raise their pay and improve working conditions, was heard at the employment and labour relati
A riot policeman stands guard as doctors chant slogans after their case to demand fulfilment of a 2013 agreement between their union and the government that would raise their pay and improve working conditions, was heard at the employment and labour relati REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

A Kenyan judge on Monday upheld a one-month suspended sentence for officials from the national doctors' union for continuing a strike that has crippled public hospitals. The union has suspended talks with the government over pay and work conditions.


This time, there was no reprieve for the seven officials from Kenya's national doctors' union.

In December, a court ruled their industrial action was illegal, and a ruling in January should have already seen them behind bars.

They avoided arrest partly thanks to mediation talks with the government, and the intervention of the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights (KNHCR) and Cotu (the Central Organization of Trade Unions), who promised results in record time.

But not fast enough for Kenya's Labour Court, which on Monday upheld its previous one-month suspended sentence.

"The applicants have not demonstrated to court any new and compelling issue... that would warrant review of the court's order," Judge Hellen Wasilwa told reporters.

Doctors have been on strike for ten weeks demanding better pay and conditions.

Monday's ruling instead of weakening their resolve has only emboldened it further.

"We are definitely in a position where now the strike can't end," Dr George, who didn't give his last name for security reasons," told RFI on Monday.

"Our union leaders who have been leading our action are now in prison. Once they come out, we shall continue with dialogue, we will continue. This country is ours, it's our peoples' lives which are at stake."

Shortage of doctors

The urgency behind the doctors' movement can be whittled down to these figures: Kenya has one doctor to 17,000 patients, says the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentist Union, KMPDU, union, while the World Health Organization recommends one to 1,000.

"The situation is disastrous," John Githongo, CEO of Inuka Kenya -- an NGO dealing with governance related issues said.

"We're going into the third month of a nationwide strike by doctors. The media has even stopped reporting on the deaths because they're piling up across the country," he added.

"Seventy five per cent of Kenyans can't afford to go into the private sector. So they rely on what is already a very stretched public system, which is suffering maybe body blow, as a result of their failure to come to some kind of accommodation with the government."

Doctors feel lied and cheated to, explains Githongo.

"The promises made by government have not been kept and it's left a bitter taste in their mouths," he said.

In 2013, the government promised doctors a salary increase of 150 - 180 percent and to review work conditions, through a so-called Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

"None of this has been implemented," argues Irungu Houghton, the Associate Director of The Society for International Development, one of eight Kenyan NGO's that signed a petition denouncing Monday's court ruling.

Government can pay, won't

"We have not invested in the human resources capacity of our health sector and it's not just about salaries, it's also about training, it's about the conditions and hours in which doctors work."

The government though argues that industrial action is crippling the public sector and costing lives. Regardless, the doctors' strike has received wide support.

"I think part of the sympathy to the doctor's strike has really come out of the shock with which we've had with regard to the amount of corruption scandals within the Ministry of Health," reckons Houghton.

"Billions of shillings, tens of millions of dollars have either been lost or cannot be explained away in terms of how we use it in the context of procurement of drugs and supplies. So, many people are saying it's not necessarily a case that the government can't pay, it's that the government is not prioritizing human resources."

Authorities have so far offered a 40 per cent pay rise, but falls short of promises made in the 2013 agreement. 

Four years ago, more than 2,000 doctors left the public sector after talks to improve their conditions broke down. And today, professionals in the private sector have also threatened to walk out.

Looming elections

"When you get to the situation where doctors go on strike even in mature democracies, it is a sign that they've been pushed quite hard, pushed to the wall," says John Githongo.

But prospects for dialogue remain on the table according to Dr George:

"As a Kenyan doctor who has worked in the system for about 9 years and lost many of my colleagues who have left the public service, many have gone abroad, I hope one day we shall get a chance where we can talk about what we want our public health care system to be."

Finding an adequate health care system that works, will also be in the government's best interests. With only six months to go before the next general elections in August, the ongoing doctor's strike and its repercussions, is fast turning into the biggest test for President Uhuru Kenyatta's leadership yet.

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