At last the tug of war between the striking doctors and the government got a deemed mediator following a decision by Parliament to handle the matter through its parliamentary standing committee on social services headed by Margaret Sitta and her deputy, Dr. Faustine Ndungulile.
Parliament’s move comes amid rejection by the government of hiking legislators’ allowances, which was strongly opposed by broad sections of the public as well as a few lawmakers mainly from the opposition.
The public was angered by the lawmakers’ move to vastly increase their pay package at a time when the country was bearing the burden of the doctors’ strike, which has severely hampered health sector functioning all over the country.
However as the main question that lingers among many is whether Parliament will succeed where the State failed.
Parliament’s decision to intervene in the current crisis came a week or so after the 10th Union legislature, holding its sixth meeting here. The general public was anxious to hear a promising word from the government concerning the ongoing medical strike and associated matters.
It was taken after the Minister for Health, Dr. Haji Mponda delivered an eagerly awaited statement last Friday on the current crisis facing the health sector and how the government dealt with the strike.
The minister went further to give details on how the government had responded to its effects by seconding doctors from the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) in a bid to minimize the severity of the strike and hospitals were the situation had been normalized.
Dr Mponda said that of the doctors’ demands, those which the government was ready to find solutions for include key issues like entitlement to housing regardless of the salary level. This would be done by amending the government circular of 2010 on the matter, relating to call allowance as well as hardship allowances.
However, Dr Mponda’s statement gave a picture that the ministry was not ready to heed to medics’ call on raising monthly salaries.
Medical professionals are demanding a 300.6 percent salary rise, such that a medical doctor who has just completed internship rises from the current Sh957, 770 to Sh 3.5 million as basic salary per month, rising to sh7.7 million inclusive of all allowances.
As per demands for senior specialists, monthly emoluments would go up to Sh17 million a month, a figure which the government argues it can’t meet considering the country’s budgetary condition.
The wage bill currently cost the government about $2 billion (Sh3.2 trillion) per month according to Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda, in remarks last Sunday.
In sum, the government has agreed to find solutions for only two out of eight demands presented by medical doctors.
The minister gave lengthy explanations on matters which the government was either not willing to comply as per doctors’ demands due to administrative complications or lack of finance. He also indicated that there were some doctors’ concerns which the government considers genuine and was ready to solve.
But the minister didn’t mention what is believes to be genuine demands. Regardless of how convincing the government statement might be, especially on how it worked tirelessly to unsuccessfully negotiate with doctors on their demands, there are still some grey areas which need thorough thinking.
For instance it remains unclear how the government failed to issue a statement to the MPs until it was ordered by the House to do so on Thursday.
On Tuesday, January 31 when Parliament begun its meeting, some MPs demanded a government statement about the doctors’ strike, but it looked as if the entire government lacked preparedness on what and how it should be presented to the lawmakers and the nation at large.
Dr. Mponda’s 37-page speech last Friday contained 13 pages of updated information as to what happened since the saga started in November.
It broke out as a conflict with internship doctors at the Muhimbili National Hospital, whose salaries were unreasonably delayed, before the matter was technically grabbed by senior doctors. They have smartly outshined the sector ministry that finally realized the matter was out of hand as it relied on the Prime Minister’s intervention.
For instance page 23 contains information in regard to various statements issued by the PM, the minister, interns’ personal forms, interns’ payment schedules and money involved, plus copies of the Labour Relations Act. It also contained a document elaborating on the formation of a government committee to deal with the matter in a broader context by looking into all the doctors’ demands as expressed in their letter to the Premier dated January 27.
The committee formed by the PM would be under a chairperson from the President’s Office - Civil Service Management and the secretary would come from the Ministry of Health. Other members would be drawn from the Treasury, the Trade Union for Government and Health Employees (TUGHE), the Medical Association of Tanzania (MAT), the Nurses Association (TANA), the Ministry of Regional Administration and Local Government, the labour and employment ministry, and the Attorney General’s office.
According to Dr Mponda the committee would look into all demands and see how they can be solved on short, medium and long term arrangements.
But surprisingly, this noble idea of forming the committee to deal with the pressing and sensitive matter was mentioned by Dr. Mponda for the first time when addressing the House, almost a week since the demands were submitted to the Prime Minister on January 27.
It should be well recalled that the committee which can be regarded as a reconciliation effort has been formed after Prime Minister Pinda gave a 24-hour ultimatum for all doctors to go back to work otherwise they would no longer be considered civil servants.
Has the PM formed the committee after realising that his ultimatum did not work? Why didn’t he form the committee prior to issuance of his ultimatum? Was he not properly advised or did not seek anybody’s advice among many available? Was there any intervention to enforce what himself (Pinda) called a government decision from the highest office – State House? Or how many governments do we have in this context?
Answers to those question are only well known to Prime Minster and other top leaders of the land, but they should remain vigilant enough as the public looks and analyses the series of events that are clearly unbecoming. It is worse and irritating when such unexpected practices surround sensitive public matters such as how to handle health sector professionals – who take care of peoples’ lives.
Now we have another body, parliamentary standing committee on social services tasked by the house to look in the matters keenly and provide advisory report in a bid to find a workable solution
It was important for the Deputy Speaker, Job Ndugai to unambiguously state that he requested the doctors to go back to work – he definitely did when the seemingly impartial committee under MP Margreth Sitta will be going through detail after detail on the saga for the benefit of the highly suffering taxpayers.
However, whereas Ndugai directed the parliamentary committee to have its work completed within the shortest time possible by meeting all parties to gather key issues, it was unusual that such an important team was not given specific time for the assigned job. It is opposed to the premier’s team which is supposed to submit its report by February 14, 2012.
If this matter of lack of time frame for the job is not addressed, the public may be held to ransom when a series of meeting will be going on before a desired conclusion is reached.
For the striking doctors, the on going saga has expressly helped them to have their demands well understood by the public.
On the other hand when getting ready for negotiations brokered by Madam Sitta’s committee, doctors should take into consideration that one of the principles in the mediation process requires what is termed as ‘give and take.’
In short this principle implies that either of the sides involved should be ready to forgo some of its demands and refrain from a hard stance so as to permit successful negotiations. Government and doctors should remember that in any case the beneficiary or loser of the strike is the broad Tanzanian community.
This is because Tanzanians are dying and others enduring suffering as they lack vital medical services. Thus nobody is interested in a series of meetings without a rapid solution emerging.
At Muhimbili for instance, the head of communication and public relations, Aminiel Aligaesha says the number of outpatients has dropped from an average of 1000 to 250 patients a day.
The government argues that if it was to pay the asked money by doctors it would require additional funds of Tsh301.7 billion for the remaining five months of the 2011/2012 financial year.
Prime Minister Pinda said all doctors’ financial demands would make doctors salary bill go up to Tsh2.039 trillion which is two thirds of the total government budget for salaries that currently stands at Sh3.45 trillion out of annual budget of Sh13.5 trillion.
This figures are staggering in any context but the ministry and government as a while shall always stand a better chance of resolving this kind of matter if negotiations are taken earlier instead of waiting until the situation goes out of control.
Officials at the Ministry of Health who are accused of inefficiency and using abusive language against doctors should be ready to change before they are forced to. Otherwise the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare could simply turn into a ministry of endless conflicts.