On September 12th of this year, 3,000 Kenyan public doctors and health workers voted to strike in solidarity with medical students demanding to be paid for their volunteer hospital work. This is the second time in one year health workers have staged a strike. On Friday the health workers called off the strike, with some initial indications that it’s a serious victory for the Kenyan working class, health workers and consumers both. (We’re also hesitant to crow victory too quickly in these complex situations.)
After talks with the union officials, Medical Services Minister Anyang’ Nyong’o announced that he had revoked all disciplinary measures that the government had taken on the medics for taking part in the strike.
At a joint press conference with union officials at Afya House on Thursday evening, Nyong’o said the government would also release the salaries that had been withheld from the striking doctors.
The meeting agreed to set up a committee that would address the doctors’ grievances, which included demands for fastracking of a return-to-work formula that had been signed to end a similar strike late last year.
Kenya is a country in which politicians make about $130,000 a year, while doctors receive a $36,000 a year salary that doesn’t even let them visit private clinics. Health workers in Kenya struggle to meet the needs of their poor and working-class patients with a dire lack of basic resources like drugs and surgery tools. In the meantime, Kenyan legislators hop on flights to America or Europe to kick it with their imperialist puppet masters and get their surgeries and check ups.
Health worker demands include better wages and benefits but are not restricted to that. Their decision to strike is a last resort, a desperate act to force the Kenyan ruling class to provide the needed resources to maintain a decent and functional public health system. Nearly fifty patients die every day while the government blames the doctors as selfish and greedy rebels, even though it refuses to meet with the strikers. What level of exploitation impels medical workers to lay down their tools?
The workers want the Health Ministry to abide by the labor contract signed last December after a strike. They forced the bosses to concede a meager pay raise well below their needs and desires and haven’t received that promised amount nine months since the the two warring parties agreed on a settlement. The agreement guarantees the recruitment of two hundred more doctors to alleviate the burden shouldered by an overworked and underpaid medical staff. So far, only fifty-seven have been recruited. The government, represented by the Health Ministry, says it has no money to implement health worker’s demands because of the economic crisis. Yet somehow, they manage to find millions of dollars to freshen up their military budgets and try out their new choppers, tanks, automatic weapons, and riot uniforms against those who dare resist the existing conditions. The ruling class prepares for an acute spike in the class war.
Dennis Miskellah, a striking doctor who delivered a baby at Kenyatta National Hospital without gloves (!), says, ““Can you imagine, in this era of HIV and AIDS, we don’t even have gloves at the country’s biggest public hospital?” he asked. “Sometimes we don’t even have IV lines.” In response to the disgusting lack of basic medical equipment to treat preventable and rampant diseases like cholera and typhoid, Dr. Miskellah painfully captures the human stakes of the struggle: “We doctors refuse to be used just to certify deaths,” Dr. Miskellah said. Striking doctors reclaim their humanity by refusing to simply be the signatories of death certificates caused by government-imposed austerity policies that close schools, leave public hospitals to rot, increase basic food prices, lays off thousands of workers, and rob Kenyans of their land.
The health worker’s in Kenya aren’t alone; Kenyan teachers recently ended a three-week strike involving 250,000 educators and millions of students. The African continent, from South Africa to Kenya and Egypt, sees its working-class waging wildcat strikes, occupations, and rebellions against the repressive forces of global capitalism.
We can learn from the example of the Kenyan health workers, as we have from the rhetoric of the Chicago teachers on strike recently, that reaching out beyond narrow sectoral interest is a powerful way to break through the stagnation of labor struggles while still using the strike weapon against the enemy class. In Spain, we’ve seen health care workers break austerity laws requiring them to refuse service to immigrants. These parts of the working class, that directly serve working class people daily, could be central to initiating a new wave of struggles connecting workplace issues with the broad interests of a class as a whole…….our hope is that commodity-producing and transportation workers, so powerful in striking directly at profits, can learn from the reproductive workers the practical strength of solidarity with the whole class.