(Name, location, age, job title and gender may have been changed to protect identity)
“Your contract finishes in a month. I’m really sorry, but we’re not going to renew it. We’ll pay for your transport and your belongings to be relocated back home from the health center…”
He cried, right in front of me, head in hands on a blue plastic chair in our office. We sat in silence for what seemed like forever. I tried to say something to console him, but it was meaningless.
Opwonya, a health center cleaner worked for us for 4 years, and held the only steady source of income for his family of 5 children. 60 US dollars a month may seem like a pittance, but in Northern Uganda that’s enough to feed your family, and send all of your kids to the primary school at least. Steady jobs for unqualified people aren’t just rare here, they are a precious lifeline.
I can defend myself until the cows come home. Opwonya’s work ethic was poor. He didn’t up to work for days on end without telling anyone. We talked to him, sent warning letters. Less patients were coming to the health center as malaria levels plummeted, which meant not enough work for our staff, and less money coming in to the health center. The health center was functioning well, but was nearly out of money to pay staff. We we had to reduce staffing, just to keep the place above water. The local management agreed that he should go. My job is to provide sustainable, quality healthcare to rural citizens, and this was a hard but necessary decision.
But justification doesn’t make me feel better. The chances of him getting another job are close to zero. His kids may now sit at home and not go to school. His life will be full of new stress and problems.
Its not the first time I’ve made decision like this, and it won’t be the last. When you work with limited resources, trying to make a dent in seemingly bottomless poverty, situations like this will continue to arise. Juggling sentiment with practicality is an ongoing struggle, and with limited resources practicality usually wins. Is it fair that Opwonya lost his job just because he wasn’t a good worker? Perhaps. Is it fair that his life will now be an uphill struggle? No. If he had lost this job in New Zealand, the safety net would have kicked in, and at least provided enough for his family to live on. His kids could still go to school.
I may or may not have done the right thing. Regardless, it hurts. I consider my easy life, and overwhelming privilege. I ask for forgiveness.