No solution yet between medics and government despite hopeful promises

KMPDU Deputy Secretary General Dr Dennis Miskellah (centre) and his collegaues address the media regarding the ongoing doctors' strike at their offices in Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina,Standard]

When Kenya Medical, Pharmacists and Dentists Union officials emerged from their offices on Friday, their faces beamed with optimism and hope, giving the sense of a solution nigh.

This was captured in their speeches, as they addressed a team of reporters hankering to hear the latest from marathon talks with the government. Talks that continued for the better part of day, and later into the night.

“We believe the key and the most important thing is that we are talking. As long as we continue talking, then Kenyans can remain hopeful that sooner than later we will come to a point of convergence,” KMPDU Deputy Secretary General Dennis Miskellah said.

The two sides later proceeded into a meeting in the evening, that lasted into the wee hours of Saturday. 

But when The Sunday Standard followed up Saturday mid-morning, the answer once again was nil by agreement. An official from the union, who requested anonymity, confirmed everyone’s worst fears – the talks had stalled. 

A fundamental disagreement over documenting any potential deal had derailed the latest negotiation efforts, prolonging the agonising impasse that has seen patients across the country reeling in pain and agony.

The latest round of talks follows weeks of an acrimonious standoff, demonstrations, and calls from different quarters - especially on government - to step up and end patients’ suffering.

Thousands of patients have been at the mercy of private hospitals, while more are left to their own devices, as diseases and conditions gnaw at them.

A recent court-mandated negotiation between the government and striking healthcare unions sparked the latest round of talks. KMPDU still insisted that the government was merely returning to the negotiation table that it had initially walked away from.

However, according to insider accounts from union representatives, the latest round of overnight negotiations stretching until 3am Saturday, failed to produce any substantive written commitments that could have paved the way for calling off the over six-week long strike that has paralysed public hospitals nationwide.

“In a nutshell, there is no deal...because the elephant in the room has not been addressed, which is internship,” one union representative who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals from the doctors’ body, stated.

He was referring to the thorny issue of training programmes for new medical graduates that has emerged as a major striking point alongside doctors’ employment policies and remuneration.

While the union acknowledged making progress on some “straightforward” matters like paying salary arrears and signing collective bargaining agreements, the core demands that could warrant ending the six-week strike remain unresolved.

“Our main issues are not sorted, period,” the representative said.

Crucially, the talks have broken down over a fundamental disagreement about documenting any potential compromises reached during negotiations.

Union officials claim that while there was “goodwill and verbal assurances from both parties”, they require any agreements to be properly captured in writing before being considered binding.

“On the government side, they’re more of talk, but it’s not on paper,” one union official stated, exposing the deep mistrust that is pacing the dispute.

The unions have adopted a strict process requiring any deal to be documented, reviewed by branch leaders nationwide, and then put to a vote before the National Advisory Council.

“Unless it is on paper and we all agree, then it is inconsistent. But before that there’s a whole system of calling off the strike. It’s not like an individual’s affair,” a representative explained.

Beyond KMPDU, the government is fighting  a multi-pronged war with other medics’ unions. The first to join the doctors in their industrial action are clinical officers whose union, Kenya Union of Clinical Officers, has been on strike for more than a fortnight now.

Laboratory Technicians through their union, Kenya National Union of Medical Laboratory Officers of KNUMLO, also joined the fray. 

The taut stance by KMPDU suggests the unions’ impatience with the government’s verbal assurances without concrete results in the past. This time, they want every commitment formalised first before contemplating a return to work plan.

However, the government’s reluctance or inability so far to put proposals down on paper points to its own hesitancy in cementing offers that could be held against it legally or politically in future. Verbal discussions allow for ambiguity and deniability, as the unions aver.

As one union insider lamented, “At the moment, there is no deal. There is a stalemate. It is very stale.”

While the core issues of pay, staffing shortages, and work conditions are substantive, this breakdown over putting agreements on paper has proven an equally intractable obstacle. With neither party budging on this procedural hurdle, the talks appear perilously close to collapsing, despite a professed willingness to remain at the negotiating table from both parties.

While the talks, held without preconditions at the behest of the Judiciary, marked a pivotal shift, the unyielding position by the Council of Governors puts the national government in a tricky position.

In previous tanked talks, KMPDU blamed the Council of Governors for refusing to be part of the process.

The Employment and Labour Relations Court had further extended orders suspending the strike, and directed all stakeholders to negotiate in good faith while considering the interests of suffering Kenyans.

By the time of going to press, a senior health official who is also part of the negotiating team, acknowledged challenges with funds to meet the medics’ demands, but said the talks are constructive despite there being no agreement.

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