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Another health workers’ strike…yet again

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Twelve days ago on April 18, 2018, health workers in federal health institutions nationwide under the aegis of the Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU) began what they called a mega strike. Apart from medical doctors, dentists and pharmacists, every other category of care givers in the health sector in federal health establishments joined the indefinite strike action.

To justify the mega strike toga given to it, Biobele Moye, JOHESU’s president, said their counterparts in state and local government health institutions will join if an agreement is not reached to resolve the strike within two weeks. In effect, by Wednesday, May 2 the entire public healthcare system in the country would be crippled if the care givers in state and local council hospital join the strike as planned.

It is almost difficult to keep count of the number of times health workers in the country have shut down hospitals to press home their demands for improved working conditions and emoluments. The prolonged nature of similar strikes have always led to avoidable loss of lives as patients are forced to evacuate the hospitals with those needing specialist care left to their own fate.

According to Moye, in the lead up to the present action, JOHESU had first given a 21-day compliance notice that expired on February 28. A second notice for 30 days was given on March 5, ending on April 17, the day before the current strike started. The unions, the JOHESU leader said, were left with no choice after the federal government failed to implement the agreement reached on salary adjustment on September 30, 2017 when a similar industrial action was resolved.

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JOHESU leaders said the current strike was not motivated by any fresh demand by the workers, but for the agreements reached in September last year to be implemented. The major demand of the workers is their call for the harmonisation of their salaries with those of doctors, pharmacists and dentists who had earlier secured approval for improved emoluments. However, as the union leaders admitted, the harmonisation agreement was opposed by medical doctors who contended that the same scale cannot be adopted wholesale for other health workers.

While the workers claimed that an agreement was reached to that effect, the federal government disputes this with the Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, saying he did not meet any formal agreement.

“Let me put it on record that when we came on board, JOHESU approached us that they had an agreement with government but we discovered that there was really no agreement with government. What they were able to provide were minutes of meetings held previously and we told them that no responsible government will implement minutes of previous meetings. And of the 15 points demands, we have met 14 of them over the one and a half years. The only one left we are currently meeting on,” Prof. Adewole stated last week.

Not for the first time, the government is caught in the web of equivocation and lack of clarity in its negotiation with labour. While JOHESU apparently sees the minutes as a definitive document, the government is having to review what it may have accepted. This may be another case of government acceding to demands it may not have properly considered or unable to execute and the health sector is bogged down by the demands ostensibly legitimately obtained by the workers. The fact that doctors objected to the blanket application of the emoluments it negotiated and obtained from the federal authorities for other categories of health workers raises fundamental issues on the thoroughness or lack of it on the part of government’s negotiating team. Even though salary harmonisation is not the only item on JOHESU’s wish list, it should be profound enough for medical doctors to have waded in.

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Labour’s grouse is that the agreement ought to have been implemented by the government within five weeks. That the issue still lingers is a pointer to the fact that government may have assented to a poor deal or the availability of the funds to back up its execution is lacking. In other words, the government may have boxed itself into a cul de sac in the process yielding the moral high ground to the workers’ union.

However, given the peculiar nature of care giving and that when lives are lost as have been the case since the strike began on April 18, they cannot be recovered nor replaced. It is time for both parties to come to the negotiation table.

If the government is no longer capable of meeting the terms of the agreement, it should be candid enough and explain its position to the unions. If it is a matter of being without the wherewithal to implement the agreement in the immediate term, government should seek the understanding of the striking workers. The leaders of JOHESU should also come to the negotiating table with an open mind and readiness to dispassionately evaluate government’s proposal without compromising their interests while upholding their sacred duty of saving the lives of stricken fellow Nigerians.

The nation cannot afford to let this strike action linger further or degenerate into a total crippling of public healthcare institutions. The federal government has the responsibility to promptly initiate the process of resolving the disagreement. A knowledgeable negotiating team should be raised after the parameters for an agreement that can be conveniently and speedily implemented must have been established.

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