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Sierra Leone’s Doctors and Nurses End Strike as President Yield to Pay Demands: Victory for Common Sense

Abdul R Thomas

Editor – The Sierra Leone Telegraph

29 March 2010

Health workers in Sierra Leone have decided to end their ten day strike, which was called in protest at low pay and poor working conditions. The president has acceded to their demands, in a late night deal to increase their pay by 500%.

The strike organiser - Dr Freddie Coker told BBC’s Umaru Fofannah, that doctors would now get a take home salary of $600 (£402) a month, up from $100 (£67). Health workers will also get a review of their housing and transportation allowance by the Health Commission.

The offer was made late last night after President Koroma had told health workers in a draconian press statement - to return to work by Monday or be sacked. The President had told the Health Coalition last Thursday, that he could not afford to meet the demands of the strikers.

This u-turn by the government may well spark off copy cat industrial actions by other public sector workers, who may similarly feel disgruntled about their take home pay. But it is highly unlikely that the government will meet such demands, as the country is currently facing one of the worst economic crises since the end of the ten year war in 2001.  

Doctors across the country invariably earn less than $100 a month, while nurses take home $35. The doctors had demanded salary increase of $900, which would have seen their pay rise to $1 000 a month.

In just four weeks, the President will be launching a nationwide free access to health care for all pregnant and lactating mothers, the elderly and children under five – as a prelude to the country’s celebration of 50 years of independence in 2011. The health workers say that this new programme would lead to a huge increase in their workload.

The British government is paying £34 Million towards the cost of this programme, and has released an additional £7 Million to pay for much needed drugs and medicines. But it would appear that this budget did not make provision for a wage bill that would accommodate the demands of the health workers, nor were they consulted.

It is now clear from Gordon Brown’s letter sent to President Koroma last Friday, that with the continuing support of the British government, this unfortunate dispute has been resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned.  

While the Sierra Leone Telegraph welcome this, as a fair and just settlement for the hard working health workers in Sierra Leone and a victory for common sense, it is noted that this $600 settlement is the very same offer that the government had earlier withdrawn, and instead issued a stern ultimatum to all doctors and nurses to return to work or face being sacked.

The intervention of the President in this dispute was a high risk gamble, which had placed the credibility of the President in jeopardy. Government sponsored media had earlier reported of an expected mass sacking on Monday morning as the President was determined to see through his threat. He had declared the strike action unlawful.  

Now that the strike has been resolved amicably, it should be said that the foundation has now been laid for the effective delivery of the President’s free health care programme for pregnant and lactating mothers, and children under five. Sierra Leone’s dedicated and hard working health care workers have a key role to play in the success of this programme.

But with the on-going strategic management vacuum created after the sacking of the Minister of health and the marginalisation of the current deputy minister, doubt remains as to the credibility and strength of leadership in this vital sector. 

The President must now act decisively to bring to an end this management crisis that looms at the health ministry, by appointing a minister in charge of the country’s health care delivery.    

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