The Chairman, Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU) and National President, Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria (MHWUN), Comrade Josiah Biobelemoye, speaks with SOJI-EZE FAGBEMI, on the crisis in the health sector, why the unions under JOHESU are still threatening to go on strike and how Nigeria can have a better healthcare system. Excerpts.
JOHESU started a strike, though a warning strike, but you suspended the strike without meaningful achievements. What happened?
Like you started the question, it was a warning strike and it was also a time bound warning strike. We did say that it was going to be a seven-day warning strike. If it had been suspended before the seven days, it would have been a course to be worried . Although the government tried its best to intimidate us and threatened us to abandon the strike before concluding the stipulated seven days.
You were invited to a meeting at the instance of the Minister of Labour. What is the outcome?
As usual, the Minister of Labour handled matters as if it was his personal issues. I’m saying this because whenever a union, or a group of unions is at loggerheads, he feels like what he is going to do is to threaten the unions especially for JOHESU. In 2018, he threatened us with a court action, proscription and depletion of our union. He threatened that he would fragment our unions; even now, he’s still trying to do that. As I speak with you he is trying to prompt-up some members of my union who are the staff of Primary Health Care. Whereas the bulk of them are environmental officers, all the cadres; he is threatening now to register them as a union. These are the cadres that are already unionised by the Medical and Health Workers Union. So, if it is not only in bad faith, what will prompt the Minister to try that? I know that they made an attempt initially. Our matter has gotten to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has taken care of all those issues; and says within that environment where we are unionizing that no other union can be registered.
I have seen some of the people he’s trying to use even in my state. They came to me openly and told me that he’s going to deplete the Medical and Health Workers Union just like he did for the Pensioners Unions and Contributory Pension Unions. But I think in this case, everything about the law is against what he wants to do because Environmental Health Officers, Country Health Practitioners, Med-Lab, Assistant, Med-Lab Technicians and so on, all of them are members and unionized by the Medical and Health Workers Union. With all those kinds of intimidations, we are able to stand our ground.
What is the next line of action from the unions?
Well, like you rightly pointed out, nothing significant was done and that’s the real thing we are fighting. The Ministry of Health and the Minister of Labour are just trying to create an atmosphere that the health system, which is a multi-disciplinary sector, is always in crisis. They just want many of us to be at loggerheads, including pitching the doctors against us because there’s no way that won’t happen when you’re discriminatively treating people. I said it to him on that day, in that meeting and he was trying to defend that he is not discriminating, but he is actually discriminating.
Can you substantiate this allegation?
Let me give you one example. You are aware that Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) went on strike during COVID-19 and at the peak of COVID-19. You are also aware that before we started our strike they also went on strike, a week before us. If he’s not partial, if he’s not practicing apartheid in the health sector, when they embarked on that strike which was at the peak of COVID-19, they were still on the strike, he invited them to the table. They discussed and they walked out, he still beckoned on them to come back and discuss. They did not suspend their action and he announced it on the media that the Federal Government has given them six of their eight demands and therefore, there is no need to go on strike again when they were threatening to go to a second strike. We are not saying they shouldn’t go on strike, they have their right to ask for what they want to ask, we are not saying because they are asking we are also asking.
Also, when you talk of no-work-no pay rule, you said it is a law. But when some other unions in the same sector go on strike for months, you won’t implement no-work-no pay. When it comes to JOHESU and our members, you implement no-work-no pay.
With respect to what you said now, the rivalry between you and the doctors is affecting healthcare delivery and Nigerians believe you are just jealous of each other?
If you look back, our issue dates back to 2014. So, we are not even doing this because they are doing it. But our anger is for them to stop the glaring exhibition of discrimination and favouritism in the sector. That is what we are now standing against. Our last strike was in 2018 and for two years we have been writing, trying to engage the government, telling the government to do these things, but for two years they did nothing. And then, about June or July, another union went on strike and you attended to six of their eight demands, what does that mean? They went on strike, they’re on that strike, you did not go to court to stop them, they were there, they finished discussions and you gave them all they were needed. Even on their second strike, you still discussed with them while they were on strike and gave them the two remaining things or you gave them the format for arriving in getting the remaining two things. Coming to our own, all you do is to threaten us with court actions and quoting ILO conventions; describing our strike illegal. And when we said we are starting the strike you decided that when we have started the strike, we are on the strike already, you will not call us for negotiation. What does that depict? Is it not a clear evidence of bias? All the five unions under JOHESU are registered trade unions and the court has declared that strike is also part of the collective bargaining process. We gave you an ultimatum of 15 days, you did not call us to discuss because of the bias. When others gave, you kept talking, even as they were talking, you said you did not agree, strike commenced and within the strike you talked until you arrived at somewhere. Coming to us, you discarded the 15 days and about 72 hours or less than 72 hours to the expiration, you now called. When we got there, instead of coming with a meaningful, reasonable approach to persuade the people, you came up with a brigade commander stance. What else do we need to prove about bias, about discrimination? So what we are standing against is discrimination in health sector not against a particular government but the activities of the Ministry of Health and now the Ministry of Labour because it is also headed by a medical doctor. There’s nothing like jealousy. When there’s discrimination, you must also compare and contrast what happens.
What is the crux of the matter?
The COVID-19 hazard allowance that was hitherto paid across board, with no exception has now been shelved. In its place, a 50 per cent of consolidated basic has been approved for all health workers as COVID-19 special hazard allowance. As clear as it is, whoever was earning N5,000, and in this case everybody was earning N5,000, it now placed them on 50 per cent of their basic. After that agreement, you now went back to issue another circular from the Federal Ministry of Health, which was unilaterally done to say that non-health professionals should not be paid the 50 per cent but should be paid 10 per cent. So, you can see the deliberate provocation, we were provoked by that. Seeing that you have also met all demands by our counterpart in the industry and you are still dilly-dally with our own, you still tell us there is no money.
Again, on the CONHESS adjustment, in 2017, they told us they took it to Mr. President, and that Mr. President said there is no money to implement it, therefore we should come and bring it down. We met with Mr. President on the March 10, 2020, after we have been blocked for over four years by the former Minister of Health, Prof. Adewole. After we were prevented from seeing the President, after he left, on March 10, 2020, we met with the President. The President was surprised about this position. There and then, the Minister of Labour, Dr. Chris Ngige came out to say that it has not been taken to Mr. President because of the financial situation and they could not present it to him. He revealed that it ended at a high-level body. So, it brought about an issue of distrust.
Why did you then decide to go on strike?
We have over 15 issues before, we now compressed them under five. We told them, if we must prevent the strike from taking off, then attend to three issues from the five given to them. We simplified it to these three: Correct errors in the COVID-19 hazard allowance as was agreed on July 1; payment of withheld salaries; and the adjustment of CONHESS. On July 1, we met with the Ministry and the Ministry accepted that there was a fault. And to that, I will give credit to the Minister of State for Health, Dr. Mamora. Maybe if the Minister was there too, he may not have also denied it. We agreed on that day and said, yes, clearly there was an error, we need to correct it. Based on that, they told us to submit the names of those that were affected, the list of those short-paid within 24 hours; and we submitted. They kept creating the impression that they are working on it and would pay. We then insisted that let this thing be paid when you are paying the next badge, that was June, make sure the correction is done and you pay. That way, the members can have some trust and relax to see when you source the money to pay the backlog of the arrears. They said yes, but decided otherwise, and at the point of payment, they paid without the corrections. That is what now ignited the entire process, our members said this bias our leaders have been talking has become very glaring and clear. That is why the members unanimously agreed that we must embark on the warning strike; and call government attention.
How did the government respond to the warning strike?
Rather than attend to those three things: Correction of errors in COVID-19 allowances; payment of withheld salaries, including April 2018, which is the one they have used no work no pay against us; and the adjustment of CONHESS; they were threatening us.
On the adjustment of CONHESS, we wanted to be considerate, we didn’t want to give the government a hurdle that will be very difficult to manage. We advised them that we should agree on something. We said as the Income and Wages Commission has calculated for them, they should get it approved by Mr. President, issue the circular then put it in the Budget of 2021. Isn’t that considerate enough? We are not saying they should do and begin to pay us now; but to budget for it in 2012. Yet, they could not do that. So, rather than attending to this issue and preventing the strike, they now start to threaten and blackmail us that our strike is illegal, that it is ill-timed. This is when a strike that was held at the peak hour of COVID-19 and repeated recently again was not I’ll-timed; and you attended to it, settled all the issues. It is our own, after we have at least fought COVID-19 to some reasonable hope that we are overcoming it. At the peak hour, we contributed our own resources to help the country, the government fight COVID-19. We donated PPE to the PTF through the Ministry of Health; we further provided PPE to our members because the infection rate was growing.
They issued the circular to correct the errors and followed it with a text to say that the errors should be corrected in this order but without admin and account. On that table, the reconciliatory, Dr. Chris Ngige was saying that they are not exposed to infections. But the account people are the ones that receive money from the patients. Don’t they interact with the patients? Even the security at the gate interact with the patients. Admin people are working in the same environment as us, after the clinicians have done their jobs, interact with the patients, you cannot be too careful not to carry something to these admin people. We said no, because the agreement was very clear, there is no ambiguity in that agreement. We now say they should pay them, they were earning N5000 before; and the agreement says anybody that was earning N5000 before should now be paid 50 per cent of his basic. So, those are the crux of the matter.
On the withheld salaries, you have implemented no-work-no pay for only JOHESU members to the best of our knowledge, and you have not implemented for others. Recent events have also confirmed it. So, if I am to make a case, is it wrong for me to make reference to the fact that NARD just finished a strike and you did not implement no-work-pay for them. NARD was on strike, you still called them, negotiated with them, and settled the matter with them. You met all their demands, I don’t think that is jealousy. We are only fighting against discrimination.
What are the effect of discrimination which has resulted in disharmony in the health sector?
This is what is depriving Nigeria good health because when there is no harmony among the caregivers, you can’t get the best. In those days, when Nigeria health system and institutions were among some of the best in the Commonwealth, when the Prince of Saudi was coming to Nigeria for healthcare, when the whole West Africa relied on Nigeria and the health tourism was inward and not outward as today, the whole West Africa was relying on Nigeria medicare system, it was because there was harmony.
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