The new Health Services Bill, which came into force on Tuesday, forbids health workers who are classified as an “essential” service from striking for more than three days. Those who do not comply face a fine or imprisonment of up to six months.
“After the rejection of the bill by various stakeholders, they still went ahead to pass it. It is very unfortunate. The right to protest has been taken away,” said Enock Dongo, president of the Zimbabwe Nurses Association (ZINA).
In June last year, health workers staged a week-long strike over poor pay and deteriorating working conditions, a move that brought the already struggling sector to its knees, before returning to work without a pay rise.
Since then, the bill to stop any industrial action has been fast-tracked in parliament.
“They tried to be clever, saying we are allowed to strike for three days, but we all know that even when we down tools for more days they do not want to negotiate,” said Dongo, adding that the new law will lead to more people leaving the country to seek work abroad.
Zimbabwe has lost more than 4,000 doctors and nurses to the UK and other countries since 2021, according to the Health Services Board, amid poor pay and worsening economic conditions.
“When you threaten health workers with jail, how do you expect them to discharge their duties? This will affect every citizen, nurses will just adopt a ‘go-slow’ [approach to work],” he said.
Health workers in Zimbabwe have been demanding a living wage of $540 (£445) a month but the government has said it cannot afford to pay more.
Nurses in Zimbabwe are paid less than $100 (£82) a month.
The new law has also angered doctors, who say it contradicts the country’s labour laws that enshrine the right to protest.
“This law has taken us two steps backwards. We have been trying to fight brain drain. Further frustration of health workers would lead to more people leaving. This bill will bring more negatives than positives,” said Norman Matara, the president of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights.
“This bill was widely rejected by all health professionals and even after the parliamentary consultations, this bill was rejected by the people. To see the bill being drafted into law without amendments is quite sad,” he added.
The controversial law comes as health workers are planning a nationwide strike over pay.