Despite heavy criticism against the proposed Health Service Act amendments, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa has signed the bill into law. The bill was one of the proposals debated on the floors of Parliament in 2022.
According to a gazetted copy of the new law, health workers risk spending six months in jail if they embark on a protest that lasts for over 72 hours. The controversial section is titled “Restriction of right to strike for Health Service”.
"No collective job action whether lawful or unlawful shall continue for an uninterrupted period of 72 hours or for more than 72 hours in any given 14-day period; and notice of any collective job action must be given in writing 48 hours prior to the commencement of such collective job action," the new law reads.
It further states that anyone, whether a member of the trade union or a representative of the Health Service, who organises any collective job action contrary to the aforementioned, shall be liable to six months in prison or a fine.
Health workers in Zimbabwe, like those in many other African countries, have continued to clamour for better welfare and pay rises. The average monthly income of nurses in the country is less than US$100, which unions have said is grossly insufficient and is forcing health workers to Europe.
More than 4 000 health workers have left since 2021, with many opting for greener pastures in the United Kingdom, United States of America or Australia, amongst other western nations.
The agitation for better welfare has led to a series of industrial actions. In 2022, the health workers downed tools demanding that they should be paid in dollars because of the poor purchasing power of the Zimbabwean currency and biting inflation.
Since the signing of the new law, pressure groups and trade unions have opposed its provision, insisting that it violates the rights of the workers and is inconsistent with international best practices. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), a global body that represents 200 million workers in 168 countries, has called on the Zimbabwean government to reconsider its actions.
In a statement, ITUC noted that the principle of International Labour Organisation states that “no one should be penalised for carrying out or attempting to carry out a legitimate strike and that penal sanctions should not be imposed on any worker for participating in a peaceful strike”.
President of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, Norman Matara, said the new law will be counterproductive in fighting the brain drain. "We have been trying to fight brain drain. Further frustration of health workers would lead to more people leaving. This bill will bring more negatives than positives,” Matara said in an interview with Reuters.
A presidential spokesperson, George Charamba, however maintained that the amendments were enacted to improve the health sector. "When a law is pronounced, it is done to improve the sector," he defended.
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