However, while government has done a good job stopping businesses from simply focusing on profit maximization and urging industries to give their workers a living wage, it became embroiled in a very public labour dispute of its own as nurses and midwives went on strike demanding that it keeps its promise to improve their living conditions their wage disparities and anomalies.
Nurses at the largest referral hospital in Zambia, University Teaching Hospital, become the most visible symbol of this dispute and it was not long before nurses in other hospitals, towns and districts joined in the strike action.
To cope with sick patients, hospitals operating skeleton crews enlisted the help of student nurses to fill the vacuum left by defiant striking nurses who refused to return to work.
Public opinion was on the side of sick patients as the two sides made recriminations against each other.
It was difficult for the public to witness the Ministry of Labour whose responsibility it is to promotes a stable and constructive labour relations climate, as well as, foster productive workplace relationships in Zambia stand accused of neglecting the same labour laws it was enforcing on employers of large companies.
The Ministry’s labour relations activities have focused on settling workplace disputes under various employment-related statutes, assisting in the settlement of collective agreements and producing collective bargaining information.
Through the minister and the permanent secretary’s offices, the Ministry of Labour has declined repeated requests for an interview with Commerce Gazette.
In addition, the labour commissioner and the permanent secretary at the Public Service Management Division also declined interviews on any aspect of the nurses strike by Commerce Gazette’s print deadline.
Nonetheless the public relations officer at Ministry of Labour and Social Security availed Commerce Gazette with some press releases among them only one addressed the dispute between Ministry of Labour and the nurses.
The press release dated November 27 confirmed that the Labour minister, Shamenda, his deputy and some ministry officials met with the leaders of the four health sector unions together with a few nurses at Parliament Building.
During this meeting the minister highlighted the Ministry’s role as an arbiter in industrial relations matters and reminded the union leaders that what their members were participating in was an illegal strike. The minister reiterated his earlier statement that health workers were essential workers who should not go on strike.
Further, the minister advised the unions that ‘The sanction for participating in an illegal strike is summary dismissal as per the Disciplinary Code and Procedures for handling offences in the public service’.
Since then the illegal strike by nurses was called off and government has indeed carried out its threat to dismiss the nurses.
Health minister Dr Joseph Kasonde told Parliament that a total of 234 nurses, so far, were dismissed from hospitals across the country for their participation in the strike. Media reports claim that Dr Kasonde indicates that more nurses will be termination until all striking nurses are purged from the system. He said other nurses will be employed to fill these vacancies.
Nurses dismissal setting a bad precedent - ZCTU
At a press briefing on December 4, ZCTU secretary general, Roy Mwaba, expressed sadness at the dismissal of nurses by government.
‘We are saddened because after a plea from the ZCTU, nurses went back to work in good faith but instead government decided to fire them.
‘We are appealing to the minister of Health to rescind the government’s decision and reinstate the dismissed nurses.’
Mwaba further quoted President Sata’s praise of the nurses after they had called off their strike and governments reassurance to look into their plight.
He said government’s reassurance was a clear indication that the striking nurses had genuine grievance that had to be resolved. He said the nurse’s decision to return to work inspite of their complaint not being resolved demonstrated their patriotism.
‘While we realize the essential nature of the nursing profession, it is also important to understand that nurses work under extremely difficult conditions and deserve good conditions of work like other workers.
‘In line with the PF government’s policy of creating employment and addressing the social ills facing the majority of citizens, it is unfortunate that such a large number of workers should be condemned to unemployment and poverty.’
Mwaba pointed to when both Shoprite and KCM attempted to fire their workers and government intervened to save these jobs.
In contrast, he said government was setting a bad precedent, as employers would simply follow its example when firing workers. Mwaba reminded government that as it was the largest employer in the country, smaller employers could easily emulate its action.