Of strikes, deaths and politics

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Following its sixth triennial delegates’ conference in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, between May 5 and 8, health workers across the country, under the aegis of the Nigerian Union of Allied Health Professionals, threatened to embark on a nationwide strike if the Federal Government failed to address their demands before May 17.
The union issued a sevenday ultimatum to the FG, claiming that, after suspending its last strike on February 2, 2015, government had refused to address the agreement they both had. The strike in question had lasted for about four months.
Also, health workers, under the Joint Health Sector Union, gave a seven-day warning strike notice to press home their demands and agreements, which they claimed government appeared to have jettisoned.
Some of the issues in contention, which had been on since 2009, were the urgent need to release a circular to implement the agreement on adjusted salary of all health professionals, as it had been done for members of the Nigeria Medical Association since January 2014; and the demand for payment of arrears on skipping of CONHESS 10 since 2010 in compliance with a court judgment, among other issues.
Expectedly, the workers made good their threat by embarking on the warning strike. JOHESU members said the Union had followed due process to issue ultimatums, totalling 92 days, since February 2015 when it suspended its strike, to government.
The strike action came after talks with government representatives broke down due to FG’s alleged denial of any prior agreement on the issues between both parties.
But the workers noted that the erstwhile Secretary to the Federal Government in the last administration, Anyim Pius Anyim, not only set up a sub-committee to deliberate with their representatives, the report submitted by the committee was also accepted by Government, just as another sub-committee was set up to work out the financial implication of implementing the report, for approval. UntitledThe impact of the latest industrial action on Nigerians is better imagined. For the umpteenth time, deaths that are avoidable were recorded in various public health facilities across the country. In some cases, permanent damages and injuries were inflicted on abandoned patients. And as always, patients on admission were the sacrificial lambs in the hostile tango between government and the striking workers.
The strike was worsened by a simultaneous walk-out by resident doctors, leaving only emergency services available in federal hospitals. Patients with lean purses, whose relatives did not also have the wherewithal to transfer them to private care centres, were therefore left to their fate.
Since returning to democratic rule in 1999, there have been several industrial actions by health workers to press home demands. It is disheartening that successive governments have failed to realise the insensitivity in allowing a recurrence. It is, to say the least, a disservice to the citizenry.
Usually, industrial actions are not sudden. Workers, in observing the code of conduct that guides industrial relations between employers and employees, give notice of intention. However, such are often irresponsibly, and without thought for patients accessing services in health facilities, ignored until the threats are carried out.
The strike-sack model of demonstrating muscle and supremacy between the two parties also worsens hostilities, making an agreement difficult to reach.
The brawn method of browbeating striking workers to submission has lost its novelty and betrayed its impotence as the right instrument for achieving industrial peace in the embattled health sector.
Workers could have interests and aspirations. They could sometimes make unreasonable demands. In most democracies, the workers’ right to go on strike is even guaranteed by the constitution. But the value of people’s lives that would be wasted in the event of a full-blown strike action ought to make alternative methods of resolving health workers’ industrial crises attractive to government.
While security of lives and property is a cardinal responsibility of government, without the complement of an effective healthcare system, there would be chaos in any society.
The Federal Government and, indeed, governments at all levels, should always demonstrate deep sensitivity to what is at stake any time health workers warm up for strike. The sorry plight of members of professional health associations, who provide essential services, should at all times be ameliorated. And government must not be seen as playing politics with precious lives.