Coronavirus Asia-Pacific

Malaysia's junior doctors to strike amid burnout, unfulfilled job demands

KUALA LUMPUR • Covid-19 treatment centres and hospitals in Malaysia face the prospect of disruptions tomorrow, as thousands of junior doctors are set to go on strike.

They are walking off their jobs over demands for permanent employment and other benefits, which they say have not been met despite an offer by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Friday to extend and broaden their employment terms.

Hartal Doktor Kontrak (HDK), or Contract Doctors' Strike - a group that has been planning the strike for weeks while in negotiations with the government - has warned hospitals and state health departments of the impending strike, which could involve up to 20,000 doctors, many of whom are on the front line of the battle against Covid-19.

"Contract doctors in Malaysia have agreed to participate in this strike to express their dissatisfaction with how the issue is being handled, " HDK said in an undated letter seen by The Sunday Times. It is believed to have been sent to hospitals and health departments on Thursday.

The majority of junior contract doctors are sent to Covid-19 treatment centres and hospitals, and HDK called on them to arrange for adequate replacements on Monday.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin offered a two-year extension for contracted healthcare workers, and said paid study leave, previously not available, will be provided to them.

But HDK insisted that the strike will proceed, after calling the offer "half-baked". It is pushing for contract doctors to get permanent postings, which come with better salaries and also postgraduate and specialist paths to advance their careers.

In mid-July, the junior doctors took part in a "Black Monday" campaign in which they went to work dressed in black to register unhappiness with their poor employment terms, an issue that dates back to 2016.

It appears that matters have since deteriorated. Dozens of junior doctors have resigned with 24-hour notice in recent days, citing burnout as Covid-19 admission rates at hospitals throughout the country hit record highs.

On Friday, Dr Sha'ari Ngadiman, Selangor's health chief, said that 163 doctors have quit the public healthcare system in the state alone since January this year, citing multiple factors including fatigue.

HDK has said that the doctors are being asked to work for extended hours with no extra pay, and were barred from taking up locum work at vaccination centres run by the private sector.

HDK warned on its social media platforms that Malaysia's healthcare system was showing signs of failing, with the lack of space at hospitals for patients, coupled with doctors quitting. "The doctors' rights are for the people's rights," it said on Twitter on Thursday.

Since 2016, junior doctors have been offered only contracted positions, which have been periodically extended. Medical graduates need to serve at least 4½ years in the public healthcare system before they can switch to private practice.

Contract doctors earn lower salaries compared with permanent doctors. They are also denied a viable pathway to become specialists as the government provides paid study leave benefits for permanent doctors only.

Contract doctors received only a marginal pay hike this year after their salary grades were revised. Previously, their starting pay was RM2,947 (S$950) and this was raised to RM3,611. Permanent doctors earn up to RM5,000 a month after two years of housemanship. They are also entitled to several allowances.

Since 2016, 23,077 contract doctors have been appointed. Only 789, or 3.47 per cent, have gone on to become permanent employees.

Ram Anand

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 25, 2021, with the headline 'Malaysia's junior doctors to strike amid burnout, unfulfilled job demands'. Subscribe