August 14, 2015 / 5:15 PM / 3 years ago

UPDATE 2-Ghana's doctors extend strike in challenge to government

* Doctors demand improved allowances and benefits

* Strike tests government’s budget discipline under IMF deal (Adds context, details)

By Kwasi Kpodo

ACCRA, Aug 14 (Reuters) - Doctors in Ghana decided on Friday to strike for two more weeks, their union said, in a protest that is emptying hospitals and posing a stiff challenge to the government of President John Mahama.

Doctors are refusing to see out-patients or admit new in-patients, despite pressure from government, religious and cultural leaders to go back to work.

They want better pay and conditions, a problem for a government that is trying to cut a large budget deficit in order to stick to the terms of a $918 million aid programme from the International Monetary Fund.

The strike extension came as a surprise after the president of the Ghana Medical Association (GMA) had said the doctors were likely to return to their jobs.

GMA deputy general secretary Justice Yankson said there was unanimous agreement to continue the action while pressing the government for a formal document to define doctors’ conditions of service.

“The people (doctors) have spoken and we will have to go by their decision. They have given a further two weeks for this to continue. Beyond that period, depending on gains that may or may not have been made, we will reconvene,” he said.

“There is a feeling that the government hasn’t treated them fairly over the years and they want this matter resolved.”

At a closed meeting at the GMA headquarters, the doctors appeared defiant, with some chanting ‘Aluta Continua’ (the struggle continues).

A medical director in Ghana typically earns around 4,700 cedis ($1,175) per month, though many doctors supplement their incomes by taking on private patients, and some work in religious hospitals where pay and benefits can be better.

The strike is raising pressure on Mahama’s government before elections in 2016 that are expected to be tightly contested.

Ghana, which exports cocoa, oil and gold, is under a three-year aid program with the IMF to stabilise an economy, dogged by slowing growth, growing debt and a stubbornly high budget deficit, partly attributed to a big public wage bill in the last election year.

Public sector wages swallow up 50-55 percent of tax revenues, down from 70 percent three years ago but still a concern for the IMF. The West African nation is also grappling with prolonged electricity outages which have crippled industries and angered voters.

In a revised budget to parliament last month, Finance Minister Seth Terkper widened the government’s 2015 budget deficit target to 7.3 percent of gross domestic product from 6.5 percent, and cut his economic growth estimate to 3.5 percent from 3.9 percent. (Reporting by Kwasi Kpodo; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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