Tue | Oct 17, 2017

Health-care workers threaten strike over hazard-pay dispute

Published:Monday | October 13, 2014 | 12:00 AM
In this photo taken Sunday, September 28, 2014, Promise Cooper, 16, Emmanuel Junior Cooper, 11, and Benson Cooper, 15, sit at their St Paul Bridge home in Monrovia, Liberia. The Cooper children are now orphans, having lost their mother Princess in July, and their father Emmanuel in August. Their five-month-old baby brother Success also succumbed to the virus in August. Ruth, their 13-year-old sister, is being hospitalised with Ebola. AP

MONROVIA (AP): Liberian officials are pleading with nurses and physician assistants to show up to work on Monday amid a dispute over hazard pay that has prompted calls for a strike in the middle of the Ebola epidemic.

A strike could deliver a serious blow to the fight against Ebola in Liberia, where the World Health Organization has recorded more than 2,300 confirmed, suspected and probable deaths from the deadly disease - more than any other country.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf personally toured Ebola treatment units around Monrovia on Saturday asking health workers to remain in their posts, assistant health minister Tolbert Nyenswah said on Sunday.

"Everybody is appealing because it has adverse and very negative consequences on people suffering from Ebola and progress that has been made with the fight," Nyenswah said.

Members of the National Health Workers Association are demanding $700 in monthly hazard pay on top of monthly salaries that are generally around $200 or $300. Monthly hazard pay is currently less than $500.

The association boasts more than 10,000 members, though the health ministry says only about 1,000 of those are employed at sites receiving Ebola patients.

George Williams, the association's secretary general, said he was waiting for the government to address their specific demands.

"Up to this point nobody has come to us to resolve them, so the strike action stands for Monday," he said. "Our doors are still open to negotiation and we are waiting."

He accused the government of rushing to license nursing students to replace striking professionals.

"They are planning to hire people to take our places. Because of that they don't want to engage us," he said.

More than 4,000 people have died in the ongoing Ebola epidemic, according to World Health Organization figures published on Friday.

The disease is spread via the bodily fluids of infected patients, leaving health workers especially vulnerable. More than 400 health workers have contracted the disease - about half of them in Liberia, where personal protective equipment is scarce. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone have recorded 95 health worker deaths.

Agreement in March

When the first Ebola cases were confirmed in Guinea back in March, Liberia agreed to pay $700 per month in hazard pay because there were only two treatment centres and far fewer health workers involved, Nyenswah said.

As the epidemic and efforts to contain it expanded, however, that commitment placed a "huge financial burden on the state," he said.

The government then lowered the monthly hazard allowance to $435 per month. By comparison, doctors receive at least $825 in monthly hazard pay, and their salaries are more than double most other health workers, Nyenswah said.

Ordinary Liberians expressed alarm on Sunday at the prospect of a strike, saying it could cripple the campaign against Ebola just as the international community ramped up assistance.