The West African Health Sector Unions’ Network (WAHSUN) salutes workers of all lands as we commemorate the 127th May Day. May 1 has been set aside for commemorating International Working Class’ Solidarity since 1890. This was inspired by the gallant struggle of American workers for the 8-hour workday which resulted in the sentencing of 7 labour leaders in Chicago, Illinois to death and another one to 15 years, imprisonment on the heels of agent provocateurs ignited fracas at the Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886. Four of these -George Engel, Adolf Fischer, Albert Parsons, and August Spies- were hung on November 11, 1887.
In the past 130years since the judicial murder of the Haymarket martyrs, through struggle, workers have won several rights, including that of trade union recognition and the provision of basic conditions of work that safeguard our lives. But, it would appear that the Liberian government still lives in the 19th century. Workers in the public sector, including those delivering public healthcare are denied the fundamental right of belonging to a union.
This is despite the fact that Liberia has ratified the International Labour Conventions 87 of 1948 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise) and 98 of 1949 (Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining). Liberian health workers, being conversant of the a key lesson from history that “freedom comes by struggle”, have organised themselves as the National Health Workers’ Association of Liberia, (NAHWAL).
NAHWAL and its members have been at the fore of calling for the strengthening of the Liberian health system for years, before the recent Ebola Virus Disease outbreak. They have called for improved funding of the sector and the urgent need for employment in the sector, in the face of a grossly inadequate health workforce. If these demands had been heeded, the impact of the Ebola epidemic would have been much less.
Yet, NAHWAL members were at the fore of the Ebola response in the country. This was at great costs in lives. For example, while 0.11% (4,807) of the general population had sdied from the infection, this included 8.07% (83 persons) of the health workforce, as at July last year. This disaster could have been mitigated if health workers were equipped with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), medication and materials for work. Families of fallen health workers are yet to be compensated and those who are survivors have been left to their own designs.
This was the context of the struggles of the National Health Workers’ Association of Liberia (NAHWAL) in recent years, including a strike action. Some levels of improvement were won, based on the union’s agitations. These include: the recruitment of an additional 2,000 health workers in 2013-2014; a salary increment; Ebola hazard allowance, and; annual leave.
The Liberian government has however barred its fangs for an ignoble pound of flesh. After several threatening surveillance and attempts at intimidating the leadership of NAHWAL failed, 22 of them were sacked in February 2014. After a huge outcry, 20 were recalled. But Comrades Joseph S. Tamba and George Poe Williams, the President and General Secretary of NAHWAL respectively have not been reinstated. The union which won de facto recognition despite the repressive law against trade union organising in the public sector has also now been proscribed.
The West African Health Sector Unions’ Network (WAHSUN) at its 2nd Biennial Conference held on April 19-21 at Cotonu resolved to pursue the case until victory. Public Services International (PSI), the Global Union Federation which WAHSUN member-unions are affiliated to has taken up the campaign with vigour. PSI has launched an online petition to the Liberian government, which we call on all trade unions, trade unionists and trade union federations in the West African sub-region and beyond to kindly sign: <http://www.world-psi.org/en/reinstate-union-leaders-joseph-s-tamba-and-george-poe-williams>
The struggle for the reinstatement of Comrades Tampa and Williams and for the restoration of trade union rights in the public sector of Liberia, including for NAHWAL is a struggle we must all wage and win, in the spirit of the May Day.