(GIN)—Seven doctors leading a strike of public sector medical professionals were hauled off to jail as talks to end a four-year running labor dispute collapsed. More than 5,000 workers are honoring the strike that began Dec. 5.
The Kenyan Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union has been calling on the government to honor a wage deal signed in 2013 that would have provided pay raises and improved benefits and working conditions. The government, however, refused to honor the agreement, saying it was signed by a previous regime.
Currently, doctors earn an average basic salary of $400 to $850 per month compared with a Kenyan legislator who earns nearly $14,000 a month. The new agreement would push basic pay up to $37,700 and more for midlevel doctors.
The agreement was also intended to boost Kenya’s public health system, with funds for medical research and doctor training to improve skills. It would also create 400 new residency positions, establish overtime pay, create a grievance procedure for equipment shortages and hire 1,200 new doctors each year for four years to address the severe nationwide shortage.
Dr. Judy Karagania, an ophthalmology resident at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi taking part in the walk out, identified some of the problems. “The machines break down frequently,” she said. “The doctors are overwhelmed. The patients, they are so many that they’re lying on the ground.”
Kenya’s reluctance to invest in a first-class health system seems counterintuitive as the country boasts one of the world’s fastest growing economies and a national budget of approximately $16 billion.
Corruption is a big part of the problem. In 2015, more than a quarter of the budget went missing entirely and only 1 percent was spent legally, according to a comprehensive audit by the independent auditor general. Of the $4.4 billion that disappeared, $53 million came from Kenya’s health ministry.
Further, during the same years in which the government was deliberating whether to raise doctors’ salaries, Kenyan politicians voted repeatedly to raise their own. Parliamentarians now earn about $5,000 per month and thousands of dollars more in annual perks. They are the second most highly paid politicians in the world.
That hasn’t stopped government officials and the Kenyan media from denouncing the doctors as unethical. Leading national newspapers have painted the doctors as unreasonable, exaggerating doctors’ demands with erroneous information about what the agreement would entail.
For now, union officials have called off all communications with President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government until their jailed leaders are released.