By Omeiza Ajayi, Abuja
Director-General of the Progressive Governors’ Forum PGF, a think-tank for Governors of the ruling All Progressives Congress APC, Salihu Moh. Lukman has condemned the indefinite nationwide strike embarked upon by the National Association of Resident Doctors NARD, saying there should be legal restrictions on strikes by all essential services personnel.
Lukman in a statement issued Sunday in Abuja also slammed the Ministers of Labour and Health for their lethargic responses to industrial issues which usually culminates into strikes in the sector and consequent loss of lives.
The resident doctors are on strike demanding improved conditions, payment of salaries ranging between two to nineteen months by some state governments, failure to domesticate Medical Residency Training (MRT) Act 2017 in states, among others.
Less than four months ago, between April 1 and 10, they were also on strike over the same issues and the strike was called off following a memorandum of understanding signed by the Federal Government and the leadership of the NARD led by Dr Uyilawa Okhuaihesuyi.
There is an estimated 16,800 resident doctors in Nigeria, which represents about 40% of the 42, 000 total registered doctors in the country.
Lukman said; “given the cost to human lives from strikes by health workers, it is quite alarming that strikes in a sector as important as health would be taking place at all.
“This is a sector that by every standard should be classified as essential, based on which there should be special legal restrictions regarding labour actions such as strikes. Healthcare, utility services such as electricity and water supply, law enforcement, firefighting and food services are all categorized both by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and United Nations (UN) as essential services”.
He said being categorized as essential services does not prevent workers in the sector from being organized under a trade union, even as he berated the relevant ministries for not doing enough in the circumstance.
“Similarly, in the case of the current indefinite strike by NARD, the dispute is large with state governments and specifically, Abia, Imo, Ondo and Ekiti States have been identified as the states with poor conditions. States that are yet to domesticate the MRT Act 2017 are also known. Of course, there are also issues between members of NARD employed in Federal Governments. But those issues could hardly justify why the NARD should lump every all state and federal establishments in a single basket of dispute.
“Part of what is clearly a major crisis is the fact that although in most cases, disputes between workers and employers are limited mainly to some few state governments, somehow, in complete violation of legal provisions or industrial relations practices and conventions, wildcat national strikes beyond the organisations affected are declared. Even when strikes produce human casualties, including deaths, both leaders of unions and employers, including governments behave as if it is normal.
“It is difficult to avoid the question, why should demands for job protection, better conditions of service and higher remuneration become more important than human life in Nigeria?
“Above all, the Code of Medical Ethics in Nigeria provided by the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria, under Part B (Professional Conduct) defined professional negligence to include ‘Failure to attend promptly to a patient requiring urgent attention when the practitioner was in a position to do so.’ How can this important ethical requirement be reconciled with the whimsical disposition of Resident Doctors in Nigeria to go on strike, including what is clearly a solidarity strike?”.
He said street protests and strikes ahead of any negotiations are now very common, adding that there is the need to reorient the practise of labour relations in Nigeria. “A situation whereby because citizens are angry with government and political leaders, essential services are withdrawn, and lives of citizens cheaply sacrificed must stop.
“A situation where conducts of medical practitioners, being also members of trade unions, conflict with the Code of Ethics they subscribed to must be resolved in favour of protecting the lives of Nigerians. Under no circumstance should a registered medical doctor who is a member of the Medical and Dental Council conduct himself or herself in manners that neglect the primary responsibility of attending to sick persons in Nigerian hospitals”, he added.
“It is quite frustrating, when political appointees, such as Ministers of Labour and Health are unable to proactively pre-empt strikes of health workers in the country. As loyal members of APC, being the governing party, we must appeal to our Ministers of Labour and Health to wake up to their responsibilities and end this political embarrassment coming with huge costs to the lives of citizens.
“Ministers of Labour, Health and all stakeholders must as a matter of urgency lock themselves in the most qualitative form of negotiations with all workers in the health sector to restore some minimum standards in the sector. This is not simply about negotiating terms and conditions of services of health workers in the country. It is more about creatively ensuring that these are sectors that are essential services sectors with commensurate benefits that is beyond monetary provisions.
“Over the years, however, conciliation and mediation, as functions of labour administration, have greatly declined due to lethargic factors largely because of indecisiveness of Ministry of Labour. For instance, the processes for access to both the Industrial Arbitration Panel IAP and National Industrial Court NIC, being the two legal bodies with the primary responsibility of dispute settlement that is legally binding are mainly through the Minister of Labour.
“It is curious to ask, out of all the plethora of industrial disputes leading to strikes, how many have been filed before the IAP and NIC to pre-empt strikes?
“In addition, given that awards by both IAP and NIC are not made directly to the parties but through the Minister, who has the right to refer the parties back to both the IAP and NIC, how many judgements have been obtained and to what extent has the Minister or his representatives taken actions to refer parties back to IAP and NIC to enforce existing judgements and therefore avoid strikes? Without going into all the legal technicalities, which are the vocation of lawyers, in several cases, the Ministry of Labour is laid back and hardly intervenes to prevent strikes from taking place through brokering negotiations between workers’ and employers’ organisations until strike commences.
“Two of the most recently celebrated strike actions in the country may have been averted had the Ministry of Labour enforced provisions of the relevant laws in the country to compel resumption of negotiations between unions and employers, including government in the country.
“The first celebrated case was the ‘five-day warning strike’ by Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) against Kaduna State Government of May 16, 2021, over allegations of wrongful dismissals of employees of the state government. The second is the current indefinite strike by the NARD. In both two cases, there is hardly any reported meeting between the Ministry of Labour and parties to the disputes before the expiration of the ultimatum given by representatives of workers – NLC and NARD.
“In the case of the ‘five-day warning strike’ by NLC against Kaduna State Government, the intervention by Ministry of Labour came only after the strike commences and a meeting eventually held in Abuja on Wednesday, May 18 when the strike was already three days old. Good enough, following the intervention by the Ministry of Labour, the strike was suspended on Thursday, May 19, 2021, by which time so much damage had already been caused, including disruption of essential services by health, electricity, water services workers in the state.
“It is possible that the Ministry has had some consultations and initiated processes of dispute settlement that are not reported. Be that as it may, to the extent that they were unable to pre-empt the strikes, they were ineffective. Being ineffective also made it possible for leaders of unions and workers to the organisation to concentrate more in terms of power struggles between them and the government than engage in collective bargaining negotiations. As a result, disputes between states governments and their workers are made disputes involving federal government and citizens, which also cover employees in the private sector.
“In the case of NLC versus Kaduna State Government, although the strike was scheduled to commence on May 16, electricity workers who are not employed by the state government commenced the strike action on May 15 ahead of even the aggrieved employees of the state government. Aviation workers who are also not part of the state government employees and therefore not having any legitimate grievances against the state government stopped all flights into Kaduna on May 16”, Lukman stated.