A movement for Malaysian doctors to go on strike has been gaining traction online under the hashtag #HartalDoktorKontrak
The 'hartal', Gujarati for mass protest or strike, is the culmination of a years-long issue that junior doctors are being offered poorer employment terms than their predecessors for their work in public hospitals.
Unless the issue is addressed by the government, the anonymous group of contract medical doctors have announced that they will be proceeding with a nationwide strike on 26 July.
According to CodeBlue, over 15,000 contract doctors are expected to walk out of work across the country, amid the national pandemic crisis, on the day of protest.
The current problem began in 2016, when the Ministry of Health (MOH) began offering contractual positions to junior doctors instead of permanent ones after their housemanships
According to Hartal Doktor Kontrak, the contract system was initially supposed to be a stop-gap measure to cope with the influx of medical graduates and the government's inability to absorb the high number of new medical officers.
However, with no long-term policies planned and with the change of governments, over the last five years, medical officers have only gotten their contracts extended, instead of being offered permanent positions in the civil service.
New Straits Times reported that 23,077 contract doctors have been appointed since the new system was implemented. However, only 3.47%, or 789 individuals of which, have been given permanent positions.
Contract medical officers are protesting the system because they take home lower pay than their permanent counterparts, despite doing the same amount of work
They also do not get to enjoy the work benefits offered to public servants. These include study leave, maternity leave, the ability to apply for housing loans, and entitlement to time-based promotions.
Contract doctors also do not have the opportunity to specialise, as entrance into master's programmes in public universities are only granted to permanent civil servants.
With no rights to study leave either, contract doctors are forced to resign, pay for their own training, and apply to rejoin the service if they would like to advance in their careers. Many have opted to seek for greener pastures in the private sector or overseas.
Furthermore, contract medical officers are not granted job security. Contract renewals have no clear policy and are not automatically given out based on years of service or merit. Some fear termination at the end of their contracts despite years of study and compulsory training.
The strike was initiated as a last straw following a statement by Health Minister Dr Adham Baba, who defended the contract-based recruitment on 23 June
In a statement posted on the MOH Facebook page, Adham said the ministry has continued to give junior doctors opportunities and recruit them on contract basis "without depending on the limited number of permanent positions".
His defense came in response to the Malaysian Public Health Physicians' Association (PPPKAM) and Malaysian Muslim Doctors Organisation (PERDIM)'s open letter, which urged the government to review its recruitment policy for new medical officers.
However, the Health Minister reiterated that his ministry could not increase permanent positions because they are subject to the government's rightsizing policy in the civil service.
Meanwhile, despite the support online, the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) has not condoned the work strike
In a Facebook post, the MMA's Section Concerning House Officers, Medical Officers, and Specialists (SCHOMOS) said it will not support the strike in the midst of a pandemic, but will instead plan a "more peaceful" Black Monday movement — where staff are encouraged to wear black — on 12 July to stand by junior doctors in solidarity.
It has also been reported by Malaysiakini that junior medical officers from Sultanah Nur Zahirah Hospital in Terengganu were issued memos warning of disciplinary action if they engage in the strike next month.
MOH, however, later denied these claims and said they are also trying to handle the issues faced by contract doctors.
Nevertheless, the Hartal Doktor Kontrak group told SAYS, "It is now or never"
The group said they will need the co-operation from all levels of doctors, especially specialists, consultants, and senior medical officers, to make the strike happen.
"During the strike we will make sure patient care is not affected and [the strike] won't jeopardise patient safety," they also assured.
"We advise all healthcare workers not to hesitate in joining this strike, as this is our future and only we can change this. It is now or never."
The group added they are also set to release their official memorandum to the MOH soon.
Here's an infographic by another group of doctors explaining how, if this issue continues, there may be fewer specialists in the future: