Government should brace for bruising court battles as nurses have approached the High Court seeking an interdict to halt their employer from implementing the “unlawful” removal of flexible working hours.
BY PHYLLIS MBANJE
Flexi-hours were introduced in November last year following an agreement between nurses and government to cushion the financially incapacitated nurses who could not afford to come to work every day because of poor salaries.
However, the government last month unilaterally reversed the flexi-hours agreement and reverted to normal working hours, demanding that nurses go back to a 40-hour working week, a situation which raised the ire of the health workers. The government has threatened unspecified action against defiant nurses and has placed over a thousand nurses on suspension.
Now, the nurses’ through their representative body, the Zimbabwe Nurses Association (ZINA), have approached the High Court for relief.
“Despite our best attempts to have dialogue with the employer and to have it hear our side of the story, our efforts have been consistently rebuffed,” ZINA president Enock Dongo said.
He said nurses were now labelled as defiant and false allegations about their conduct were being peddled through the media.
“With no other choice left, and upon consultation with our members, we have instituted legal proceedings to challenge the unlawful order,” Dongo said.
ZINA is seeking an order to declare the actions of the employer in circumventing the Health Service Bipartite Negotiating Panel (HSBNP) and unilaterally removing flexible hours as unlawful.
On Friday, the nurses’ representative body filed another urgent chamber application to interdict the implementation of the “unlawful” removal of flexible hours and the attempts to punish nurses through hearings.
The permanent secretary in the ministry of Health and Child Care, Jasper Chimedza, last month sent out a communique to hospital chief executive officers and provincial medical directors declaring that flexi-hours were now banned.
“All categories of nurses are supposed to work for 40 hours per week. However, they have been on flexi-hours since November 2019,” Chimedza wrote. “The flexi-hours are causing the following challenges, no proper handover and takeover, no continuity of nursing care, compromised quality of patient care, exaggerated shortage of nurses resulting in inadequate ward coverage.”
“Therefore, all heads of institutions are kindly advised to stop the flexi working hours forthwith. All nurses should resume normal 40 working hours per week with immediate effect.”
About 1 232 nurses have been suspended and charged for disobeying the order to abandon flexible hours. Zimbabwe’s health delivery service has undergone dramatic deterioration and the disaster is set to deepen as the labour disputes spiral out of control with nurses threatening more action.
Meanwhile, health stakeholders have bemoaned the stand-off and are calling on the government to resolve the impasse urgently.
“We urge the government, through the Health Services Board to find an amicable solution with the striking health workers. Piecemeal solutions that do not address the policy gaps in human resources for health have not worked before and will also not work in the future,” said Norman Matara of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights.
“The government must expand the health sector establishment, realign the salaries of health workers to regional standards and establish a workable collective bargaining platform for health workers.”
Of concern too was the deployment of military health personnel to hospitals, he said.
“This should only be done to complement the health workforce during national disasters and emergencies and never be used to resolve a labour dispute by replacing the disgruntled civilian nurses with the military nurses as it has never worked elsewhere and is generally not supported by the general public,” said Itai Rusike, director of the Community Working Group on Health.
Rusike said there was urgent need for the nurses and their employer to get back to the negotiating table and resolve the labour dispute for the long term benefit of suffering Zimbabweans who rely on public health institutions.
He urged Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, who is also the Health minister, to steer the ministry from the broken public health delivery system and leave a positive legacy instead of further collapsing the sector.
“The public health delivery sysem is sending a lot of Zimbabweans to their early graves from avoidable and preventable deaths.”