For the fifth day in a row, thousands of government doctors have continued a strike across different parts of Egypt to demand better wages and work conditions.
The strike has partially interrupted medical services in many public hospitals and clinics and forced the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to call retired doctors back to work to treat emergency cases.
Levels of doctors participation in the work stoppage in provincial areas of Egypt remains higher than the capital of Cairo, and garners as much as 60 per cent support in some governorates such as Ismailia on the Suez Canal.
This morning, in an attempt to reach common ground with strikers, the minister of health announced that the government has decided to commit itself to to raise doctors’ minimum salaries to LE1000 as of October.
However, Ahmed Nour, a striker who works as a general practitioner in a clinic in Helwan and South of Cairo, and who is a member of Doctors Without Rights, a grassroots organisation that lead several confrontations against Mubarak over health issues in recent years, called Ahram Online later this afternoon to inform us that the Ministry of Health had just informed strikers in a fax that it cannot afford to pay doctors more than 50 per cent of backwages and incentives that they have been owed for months because of financial difficulties.
“How could we trust these people who promise you a raise in the morning and then cut your basic salary by mid-afternoon,” Nour asked Ahram Online.
Meanwhile, Ahmed Atef, a member of the Coaltion of Egyptian Doctors, another grassroots organisation that called the strike, told State Radio that doctors believe that the government can immediately start raising minimum wages for workers if it sets a cap on out-of-control maximum salaries for top bureaucrats and also stops spending millions of pounds on wasteful salaries for consultants.
In the last 10 years, Egyptian doctors in public hospitals and clinics — who number over 100,000 by most estimates — have been at the forefront of labour struggles against the regime of former dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Since the early 2000s, doctors have organised multiple protests and strikes to demand higher wages for care providers and more government spending on healthcare services to deal with an ailing population.
After six years of medical school, recent doctor graduates in Egypt earn as little as LE300 ($50) per month, at a time when most economic studies show that LE1200 per month ($200) is a minimum amount required to keep poor Egyptians afloat.
On the other hand, deteriorating public health services for the poor in a country ravaged by privatisation over the last 20 years has left millions of Egyptians plagued with some of the highest rates of liver and heart disease in the world.
In the last few months, government doctors attempted to put pressure on Sharaf’s cabinet to raise wages and increase spending on public hospitals.
In mid-May, doctors across Egypt went on strike to demand that Sharaf raise minimum salaries to LE1200 a month and increase the Ministry of Health budget from 4.5 per cent to 15 per cent to improve services for poor Egyptians. At that point, Sharaf promised to raise doctors’ wages from LE1000 to LE1400 and to also significantly beef up the healthcare budget.
However, Ahmed Atef told State Radio yesterday that physicians had to call a strike because Sharaf and his minister of health, a former striker himself, have failed to deliver any meaningful change over the course of the last four months.
Sharaf did increase spending on healthcare by millions of pounds, but the overall percentage of spending on health remained insufficiently low to reverse a long term decline in services, Atef said.
Ahmed Nour told Ahram Online that many doctors were livid because the government refuses not only to improve conditions but also to pay what doctors are already owed.
“Let us put aside for a moment the fact that they are still stalling on our just demand for LE1200 a month to feed our families and care properly for our patients. Sharaf has not even paid us something called a 100 per cent monthly incentive bonus which we won from Mubarak in his last years in order to boost our ridiculously low salaries of LE300 to say LE600,” Nour added.
Some news reports have estimated that doctors’ actions have grounded non-emergency medical services in at least 30 major hospitals and many smaller clinics around the country.
The recent decision by doctors to strike has come on the heels of two weeks in which wide sections of workers, from postal employees to textile workers, to teachers and university professors, have staged strikes or have threatened to strike against Sharaf over what they see as a trail of broken promises made in spring on improving national minimum wages and work conditions.