The plague of strikes in Sudan: Who is to blame?

By Zechariah Manyok Biar

March 30, 2010 (SSNA) — Medical workers have been on strike for sometimes now in Sudan, even though Miraya FM reported that there is a mediation team that has been formed to “negotiate between striking doctors and officials from the Federal Ministry of Health to reach a resolution.” Sudan Tribune also reported on March 26, 2010, that the “Staff of the two major and only Southern Sudan government-owned broadcasting media have threatened to go on strike beginning on Monday over lack payment of 12 months arrears of their housing allowances.”

What concerns me is that both the government of Sudan and the government of South Sudan do not seem to take the strike of workers seriously. The President of Sudan Omer Hassan Al-Bashir was reported on March 18, 2010, to have “ordered the ministry of health to fire specialized physicians who have officially gone on week-long strike to press the government to pay back wages and improve their working conditions.”

If my understanding is correct, then the doctors are on strike because they want the “government to pay back wages and improve their working conditions.” The staff members of the government-owned broadcasting media in South Sudan are threatening to go on strike because of the lack of “payment of 12 months arrears of their housing allowances.”

So the question is: Are the doctors and the staff members of the government-owned broadcasting media wrong in going on strike? The answer would depend on who is looking at it. The workers and their sympathizers would say that they have the right to strike until their demands are met. The government and its sympathizers, on the other hand, would say that the workers on strike lack patriotism because they do not understand that the government is in financial crisis, or whatever reasons the government has. So let us look into these two positions.

Nobody would downplay the fact that the government budget in Sudan is often altered by changes in oil prices. The government may have enough money in one period to pay its workers on time, but may not have enough money in another period to fulfill its obligation of paying workers on time. So what matters, one may argue, is for the workers to be patriotic in serving their nation or they face the consequences of going on strike. Since the Sudan People’s Liberation Army fought for more than twenty years without pay, what is wrong with journalists of the government owned media to stay for a year without pay?

We can borrow the ideas of the British political philosopher John Locke to find out whether the government would be justified in forcing people to work without paying them because they are supposed to be patriotic in their services to the nation. Locke believes in consent. When the people formed a government, they agree to be bound by the rules of the government. But Locke does not believe that individuals do not have any right under the rules of the government.

Locke agrees that the government has authority to force its citizens into serving the nation. However, Locke believes that the government has the limit. He argues that the government is justified when its laws applies to everybody and not arbitrarily picking on some people. Locke even says that an army sergeant has the right to order a soldier to run into the enemy’s fire that may kill him. He also argues that a general in the army can sentence one of his soldiers to death for deserting his unit. Even though Locke believes that an army general has the right over the life of his or her soldier, he argues that what the army general cannot do is to take out even a single penny from the salary of his or her soldier. Locke seems to believe that a right for the soldier to receive the salary he or she is entitled to even trumps his or her right over his or her life. This is a very strong argument.

The workers in Sudan, I would argue, have the rights over their entitlement in the same way the soldiers that Locke talks about have all the rights to their full salary over their lives.

I think it would be wrong for anybody to argue that the workers now in South Sudan should not complain about their delayed salaries and benefits simply because we fought for twenty-one years without pay. When we rebelled against the government in 1983, we gave our consents to the SPLM/A that we would fight without pay until we achieved our objectives. But when the government was formed in South Sudan in 2005, the consent to work for the nation without pay changed. The government started employing people for pay.

Whenever any institution in South Sudan now, whether public or private, advertises a position, a qualified person who applies for that position is giving his or her consent for the work and the benefits that come with it. The institution that employs such a person has the duty to abide by the rules governing that position, and the rules include salaries and other benefits.

The violation of employment agreement has nothing to do with patriotism, because those who are receiving their salaries at the regular bases are supposed to be patriotic too. If the reason for not paying doctors and media staff members is because the government is in financial crisis, then ministers and other senior civil servants will not get their salaries and benefits on time, too.

All workers are equal under particular agreement. Some workers are obviously paid higher than others based on their qualifications. But everybody is equal when it comes to pay period.

African governments often complain of brain-draining of African qualified professionals like doctors and nurses, but what is now going on in Sudan may explain the reason why qualified human resource in Africa transports expertise to countries that already have enough qualified workers.

It takes a lot of mental energy and resources for somebody to spend about twenty years in school to reach the level of medical doctor. It hurts for such a person to agree to serve the nation only to find him or herself doing the work for the nation, but rarely has a place to lay down his or her head.

The government of Sudan must understand that people love their countries only if their countries love them back. It is difficult for any qualified person to tell his or her family that he or she is broke. A leader who puts him or herself in other people’s shoes cannot even despise the workers on strike, let alone threatening them with dismissal from their jobs.

Our leaders should be humans if they are to develop our country.

Zechariah Manyok Biar is a graduate student at Abilene Christian University, Texas, USA. He just graduated with a Master of Arts in Christian Ministry and he is still pursuing a Master of Science in Social Work, specializing in Administration and Planning. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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