Nurses ‘Won’t Back Down’

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By Surihe Gaomas WINDHOEK During lunchtime yesterday, hundreds of disgruntled nurses converged at the entrance to the country’s largest referral hospital, the Windhoek Central Hospital, where they held a press conference to discuss the latest developments in the standoff between the government and their representative, the Namibian Nurses Union (Nanu). Both government and the nurses remain steadfast in their battle for supremacy, and both parties have stuck to their guns since the nurses’ demands came into the open towards the end of last year. The latest bout in a series of verbal slugs saw Nanu threatening that unless government meets its demands for improved pay and overtime, the union giving the ultimatum as January 23, 2007, its members would be forced to down tools. According to Abner Shopati, the leader of Nanu, January 23 will not necessarily be the day of the proposed strike but it will be the day when the union will decide whether or not to strike, and if so, when. This is contrary to certain alarmist media reports claiming there would be a nationwide nurses’ strike on January 23. “As Nanu Secretary General, I am not aware of such actions, neither the entire leadership of Nanu. What we know about January 23 is the deadline for government to give an official response to our demands,” said Shopati, making reference to the petition they handed over to government on December 6 last year. Shopati added that should there be a strike on that day it would not be a Nanu-organised strike and none of its members or supporters would be part of it. However, the date quoted is a deadline on which government would have to react to Nanu’s demands, failure of which, according to Shopati, would then force the union’s leadership to consult with its members on the route of action to follow – thus not ruling out the possibility of a nationwide strike sometime in the future. “We are not backing down and we did not want to pre-empt government’s decision, but we shall continue fighting until our employer recognizes our grievances,” said Shopati. Approached for comment yesterday, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Social Services, Dr Kalumbi Shangula, said that his ministry remains firm, and that the issue is receiving attention from all stakeholders inclusive of the Office of the Prime Minister. On Tuesday the Minister of Health and Social Services, Dr Richard Kamwi, issued a stern warning to nurses throughout the country that if they involve themselves in any strike this month they must be prepared to face “grave consequences”. “No one is above the law. My suspicion is that the consequences are likely to be grave for those who will not listen. On that fateful day, nurses should be reminded that they will be handled individually and not collectively,” said Kamwi who is currently travelling to Opuwo on his ongoing mission to address nurses on the matter countrywide. Shopati yesterday said the ongoing labour dispute became a “political and personal issue” on 13 December last year when the Deputy Minister of Labour, Petrus Ilonga, described him as being “anti-Swapo” and that he should be fired. He also quoted the Health Permanent Secretary Dr Shangula as having said, “We were informed that the current standoff is not a purely labour issue. It is loaded with political undertones.” Shopati vowed to pay with his blood to fulfil his convictions, accusing the ministry of threatening, intimidating and suppressing his views in breach of the constitution. He further denied having been in a committee that reportedly rejected fixed overtime for nurses as proposed by the PS, saying such a meeting never took place at any time. Several efforts to contact the health minister to get the outcome of his meeting yesterday with Prime Minister Nahas Angula were in vain as he was unreachable.