Ministry of Health (MoH) deducted pension from 473 intern medical staff who have since been dropped from the payroll, a development the Department of Human Resource and Development (DHRD) considers irregular.
According to experts and those familiar with government recruitment procedures, interns cannot be put on payroll but if that happens, it means the interns were ‘practically recruited’.
DHRD spokesperson Kennnie Mtonga said in an interview that only permanent employees are put on government payroll and are deducted pension.
While MoH, responding to our questionnaire, calls it “a mistake”, a well-placed source in the ministry confided in us that the interns in question were essentially recruited but now there is a change of heart due to lack of finances.
“These were engaged as interns, but the intention was to recruit them to cut down on high shortage of staff. But you must know that the decision to engage these people happened in the thick of preparations for May 21 elections and a hasty decision was made to have the interns change into permanent employment.
“But now there are no more funds to sustain them on the payroll and I am not sure what will happen to the deducted pension,” claimed the source.
According to president of the affected group Elias Kumwenda, the interns were also surprised that they were removed from the payroll after government gave them an indication that they were employed permanently.
“We were told that we had been employed. We signed the GPI Form which permanent staff sign. We were given employment numbers and we got pay slips where government was deducting pension.
“Each one of us had been assigned a grade, depending on their qualifications; some were on Grade K, others J. We thought this was full-time employment because they cannot deduct pension from an intern,” he said.
While the group thought they were employed permanently, an offer letter we have seen clearly stipulates that this was an internship lasting for 12 months.
“I am pleased to inform you that management has directed that you be offered a place following the completion of your studies at the Malawi College of Health Services. On accepting this offer, you are requested to report for internship at Mzimba as lab technician (Grade K). Your internship period is 12 months, starting from November 1 2018 to October 31 2019,” reads the letter for one of hired interns.
This justifies the ministry’s decision to remove them on the has elapsed. But what is not clear is how the ministry ended up including interns on a payroll and deducting them pension. payroll— as the internship period
This arrangement is also outside the government internship programme run by the ministry responsible for labour, where all interns receive a uniform monthly allowance of K80 000. The 473 interns received different salaries, depending on grade, according to some pay-slips we have seen.
MoH spokesperson Joshua Malango justified the placement of the interns on different grades, saying this was according to qualifications, which also influenced the difference in salaries.
He further admitted that all interns are on non-established posts; hence, not eligible for contributory pension.
“It was mistakenly deducted and it was corrected. Let them check with HR (Human Resource) for their hospitals if theirs was not corrected, but almost all were corrected,” said Malango.
But our random check with some of the interns by close of business on Friday, the so-called mistake had not been rectified.
DHOs, activists press for recruitment
District health officers and health activists have pleaded with government to permanently recruit the interns to avoid creating further shortage of staff, which may lead to disruption of services in public health facilities.
Two DHOs, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the internship arrangement was a welcome idea as it helped to alleviate shortage of qualified staff in public health facilities.
The DHOs claimed they were told by the ministry that the interns would eventually be recruited after completing internship for a year.
Said one of the DHOs: “The ministry did not want to create a gap so the arrangement was to recruit these interns before their internship ends.”
Another DHO added that the permanent employment for the interns was guaranteed as government moved in to deduct pension funds.
“They had pension deducted. This was an assurance that these were permanent staff. Whatever the reasoning in government these guys should be employed to ease the pressure of work,” he said.
The 473 interns, who were deployed across the country, include clinicians, medical assistants, laboratory technicians and optometry technicians.
The Health Sector Strategic Plan 2 (2017-2022) reveals high vacancy rates in the public health sector. The country has 63 percent shortage of clinical officers, 66 percent for nursing officers, 62 percent for lab technicians and 79 percent for pharmacy technicians, among other cadres, meaning that the 473 were a big push to closing the gaps.
Malawi Health Equity Network (Mhen) executive director George Jobe said there is no reason for government to drop the interns when they were fully incorporated in the system, adding that their removal will only make things worse in the already stretched public health system.
He said government ought to prioritise the health sector; hence, recruitment of the interns will be a move in the right direction to meet set targets under the Universal Health Coverage.
Jobe said with the huge vacancy rate in the health sector, it will be foolhardy to expect quality and improved service delivery.
Another health activist Maziko Matemba said it is understandable that government may not have funds to make more recruitment in the civil service, but it ought to prioritise.
“It could be that government does not want to push its wage bill too high based on agreements with IMF [International Monetary Fund] but what is important is to prioritise who to employ.
“Look at these interns, they are a critical staff in the health sector and government ought to do away with some positions in the civil service and create space for key ones like in health – this a political decision we need to make,” he said.
Malango said they could not just recruit the interns without following the due procedures such as seeking approval from Treasury and “seeking authorisation to fill the vacant posts available at that particular time, after that submit to relevant commission declaring the vacancies, commission advertises, shortlist, invite shortlisted candidates for interviews, offer appointment to successful candidates”.
Meanwhile, some graduate medical staff are taking to the streets, demanding employment from government. It appears that while the health sector is facing a huge staff gap, there are scores of unemployed graduates ranging from nurses, clinicians and doctors just to mention a few.