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This was during a meeting he summoned on 8 February, with a cross-section of the unions of workers in the sector, including the National Health Workers’ Union of Liberia (NAHWUL), a PSI affiliate.
Over the years, health workers in Liberia have worked under the most dismal of conditions. The post-conflict country has been a poster-child of the World Bank and IMF, carrying out some of the most wide-spreading neoliberal reforms in the developing world. A major consequence of this has been severe worsening of its fragile health system, undermining crisis preparedness.
Poor infrastructure, lack of equipment, non-implementation of occupational safety and health measures, pitiable remuneration of health workers and perennial job insecurity are some of the symptoms of the dire state of the healthcare system. These have been exacerbated by attacks on trade union and labour rights.
This was the context in which health workers rose to combat the spread of the Ebola Virus Disease during the 2014 outbreak. They had to treat infected persons, often without personal protective equipment, resulting in a high rate of health workers fatality.
While the 4,810 Liberians killed by Ebola represented 0.11% of the entire population, 8.07% of the population of health workers lost their lives. Meanwhile, in Guinea and Sierra Leone, 1.45% and 6.85% of health workers respectively, were killed.
Efforts to make the former president Ms Ellen Johnson Sirleaf address the devastated situation of the health system and the worrisome state of health workers were met with highhanded attacks. Joseph S. Tamba and George Poe Williams, the President and Secretary General of NAHWUL respectively, were sacked on 18 February 2014, for daring to lead a strike to protest the abysmal working conditions confronting health workers.
PSI and its affiliates have been campaigning in #SolidarityWithLiberia for the reinstatement of Brothers Tamba and Williams. The campaign has equally been for the government of Liberia to respect workers freedom of association, and protect their rights to organise and collective bargaining as enshrined in the Liberian constitution and ILO Conventions 87 and 98 which the country is a signatory to.
Public sector unions in Liberia are denied these rights. This is one of the ways that a slave-master narrative and practice has been perpetuated by the state in its relations with women and men delivering much needed public services to the populace.
It was the resistance of health workers to this framing which was meant to make them keep quiet despite the health system literally falling apart, that drew the ire of the former president. Informally, officials of the ministries of health and labour declared the case of the dismissed labour leaders closed because Madam Sirleaf-Johnson was insistent on not going back on the vindictive action.
The swearing-in of President George Weah on 22 January appears to mark a new lease of life for possibilities of entrenching workers’ rights, and the flowering of democratic ethos in Liberia. His meeting with the health workers on 8 February is the first time in the history of Liberia for a sitting president to call upon the health workers to listen to them on issues affecting the health sector in an effort to address occasioning challenges.
This is a welcome development. His appreciation of their sacrifices equally shows a humane heart. Health workers are indeed heroes. But we want them as living heroes and not martyrs. This requires that measures which put people over profit are taken towards revamping the health sector and building a more inclusive society, based on social justice and sustainable development.
We take this opportunity to call on President Weah to reinstate Brothers Joseph Tamba and George Poe Williams with their full benefits as a clear demonstration of the new beginning he represents. Similarly, recognition of the rights of health workers and indeed all workers in the public sector to organise and collective bargaining is pertinent and actions in this direction should be expedited.
PSI thus expresses its heartfelt appreciation for the new spirit which President George Weah is bringing to bear in Liberia. We shall collaborate with him towards deepening workers and trade union rights and the realisation of universal access to public healthcare.