Hundreds of striking Kenyan doctors and their supporters marched Thursday to Nairobi's Employment and Labor Relations Court, some waving the national flag and others carrying signs saying, "It is Actually the Ministry of Health That is on Strike, Not the Doctors."
The medical professionals have been off the job for weeks, protesting what they say is the government’s refusal to abide by a 2013 collective bargaining agreement over compensation and other issues. Their national strike, which has crippled public hospitals and left patients without medical care, is nearing its second month.
Inside the court, Kenyan judge Hellen Wasilwa announced she would be suspending the jail sentences of seven medical union officials, whom she told to end the doctors' strike by the end of the month or risk jail time.
“So, I will suspend this sentence further so the doctors will not be going to jail today,” said Wasilwa. “They have five more days, and these five days are not for negotiation in my view; it is for calling off the strike.”
She added negotiations are permitted to continue during this time.
Earlier this month, Judge Wasilwa sentenced the officials from Kenya’s Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union to a suspended one-month jail term for disobeying a court order to end their strike. They had until January 26 to finalize negotiations with the government or face jail time.
The union has argued the government used these pending jail sentences as a bargaining chip to delay negotiations.
Protester Dr. Andrew Wetende said this is unacceptable. “In this type of engagement, one side is at a disadvantage. One side has a sentence hanging over their head. The other side, there are no consequences. And so you can take your time. You can disappear for five days. Who will we negotiate with?”
Union officials argue the 2013 collective bargaining agreement would increase their salaries by 180 percent. Last year, a judge ruled the agreement was “unregistered.”
Kenya’s government has responded with an offer of partial salary increases, but also threatened to fire all striking doctors.
A request for response from Kenya’s Ministry of Health and a government spokesperson went unanswered.
Union board member Doctor Denis Miskellah says he and his colleagues are prepared to go to jail to show the importance of their cause.
“So if it is jail, for that to take Kenyans where they are supposed to be, so be it,” said Miskellah. “Mandela was jailed for South Africa to get freedom, Martin Luther King was killed for the Blacks’ rights; even in our country here, the president’s father was jailed for us to get our independence. So if jail is what it will take for us to get good health care, we are ready for it.”
According to some estimates, dozens of people have died as a result of the strike's impact on the health system. The medical union officials are scheduled to return to court next Tuesday.