NURSES and nursing assistants at Queen Mamohato Memorial Hospital (QMMH) have gone on strike to press the government to award them salary increments to match their counterparts in other government and private institutions.
The strike, which began on Monday, followed the health ministry’s failure to address the nurses’ grievances by the 27 January 2021 deadline given by the nurses.
The strike entered its third day yesterday with the nurses refusing to yield to the hospital authorities’ directive for them to return to work.
QMMH public relations manager, Mothepane Thahane, said the workers should return to work failing which they would face disciplinary hearings for ignoring lawful orders.
Unless it ends soon, the strike will certainly cripple the already ailing health sector which is struggling to deal with Covid-19 infections which have risen exponentially since the end of the festive season at the beginning of last month.
Lesotho had recorded a cumulative total of 8969 infections and 178 deaths by yesterday.
Apart from the current Covid-19 burden, nurses and other health workers are struggling to deal with other diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis. A strike at QMMH would therefore, cripple the entire health sector as it is Lesotho’s main referral institution.
Nurses at the facility say they have not been awarded any increments since 2012 when the government and the Christian Health Association of Lesotho (CHAL) increased the salaries of nurses at other institutions.
According to the Lesotho Nurses Association (LNA), nurses at QMMH earn about M9000 each per month. The figure is way less than the M13 000 earned by their colleagues in CHAL facilities and other government hospitals.
Opened in 2011, QMMH is owned by the government but is run by the Tšepong consortium comprising of five companies, namely Netcare Healthcare Group and Afri’nnai of South Africa, as well as Excel Health, Women Investment and D10 Investments from Lesotho.
Although QMMH operates as a public-private sector partnership (PPP) agreement between the government and the Tšepong consortium, the hospital’s public relations manager, Mothepane Thahane, last week said nursing staff and nursing assistants were left out when the government reviewed the salaries of health workers in 2012.
The LNA, which has taken up the QMMH nurses’ cause, last week threatened “drastic measures” if the government failed to act on the salary grievances by 27 January.
LNA president Raphael Tlali wrote to then Health minister Motlatsi Maqelepo on 25 January 2021 requesting an immediate salary review for the QMMH nurses to match their peers working in public hospitals.
With the deadline having lapsed on 27 January 2021, the 265 QMMH nurses and 109 nursing assistants made good on their threat to strike.
“Today the nurses and nursing assistants reported for duty only to speak to their employer so that they could get the salary increment which they have been requesting for several years,” Mr Tlali said.
“The LNA is involved as a mediator between the workers and their employer. We engaged the Tšepong management regarding the issue four weeks ago but unfortunately, they directed us to the Ministry of Health which has not responded until now.”
Mr Tlali said Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro must immediately step in or the situation will soon get out of hand.
On her part, Ms Thahane said the strike was illegal and called on the nurses to immediately return to work.
She confirmed they had held talks with the nurses’ representatives before engaging the Ministry of Health over the salary grievances.
While awaiting feedback from the ministry, the hospital authorities were surprised to see the nurses going on strike on Monday, she said.
There was no formal notification of the strike which had overwhelmed the hospital which had to rely on skeletal staff, she added.
“This issue must be handled carefully. While their grievances are valid, they are not doing themselves and the public a favour by abandoning work especially now that we are in a Covid-19 crisis,” Ms Thahane said, adding they would soon be forced to discipline nurses who did not return to work.
Efforts to get a comment from Mr Maqelepo were fruitless as his mobile number rang answered yesterday. He was yesterday moved from the ministry to the Forestry, Range and Soil Conservation portfolio.
His replacement, Semano Sekatle, will have his work cut out in addressing the salary grievances and other challenges besetting the health sector particularly in these times of Covid-19.