Strikes among the unions have become too common for meaningful development

The ongoing strike by the Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU) which began on April 17 is already crippling the public health sector in the country. And with most of our public hospitals becoming places of death, we urge the authorities to move in quickly to resolve whatever the problem is in the interest of the suffering masses.

 What is particularly worrisome is that strikes have suddenly taken the centre stage of our national life. While refusal to work has been universally recognised as a tool available to the working people in their demand for a better work environment or the enhancement of their wages, the frequency of these strikes in virtually all sectors of the nation’s socio-economic life is now posing serious threat to our economic development. We therefore urge the federal government to put in place a machinery to seriously address all the issues that give rise to these endless strikes in many of the sectors.

 In the instant case of the health sector, JOHESU is accusing the federal government of failing to implement a memorandum of terms of settlement signed with the union in 2017. The union comprises five affiliates: Medical and Health Workers Unions of Nigeria (MHWUN), National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives (NANNM), Senior Staff Association of Universities, Teaching Hospitals, Research Institutes and Associated institutions (SSAUTHRIAM), Nigeria Union of Allied Health Professionals (NUAHP) and Non Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutes (NASU).

The agreement borders on the upward review of Consolidated Health Salary Structure (CONHESS) scale, arrears of skipping CONHESS 10, recruitment of additional health professionals, implementation of some court judgments and upward review of retirement age from 60-65 years. The government had agreed to begin implementation five weeks from September 30, 2017. But it reneged. That was why JOHESU embarked on the current strike.

 In a country where more than half of the population lives in poverty, being able to access healthcare at the public hospitals remains critical, as many cannot afford even the consultation fees in the private hospitals. Instructively, as soon as the strike began, many of the public hospitals had to discharge their patients, for their families to move them ‘elsewhere’. The elsewhere in this instance means private hospitals for those who can afford them, taking the patients home to die for those who cannot, or patronising alternative medicine practitioners. The implications of these are dire.

The Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole has said the demands of JOHESU, which include pay parity with doctors, is impossible but even the other parts of the agreement are yet to be implemented, hence the ongoing strike. It has become clear that the government simply enters agreements with the unions, just to end strikes, not necessarily with any intention to implement. That then explains why the unions do not trust the government. Almost all the unions in the tertiary education sector have already embarked on strikes at different times this year alone.

However, while we agree with the right of workers to demand enforcement of better working conditions, we disagree with the penchant for strikes at the slightest excuse. The unions have lost sympathy of citizens due to the realisation that the strikes are mostly about “welfare” and pay rise for their members. Besides, some of the demands of the unions are sometimes unrealistic, like seeking pay parity with doctors. But we agree to the point that government cannot cynically walk away from signed agreements.

We therefore call on JOHESU and the federal government to quickly find a middle ground, to avert avoidable deaths in the public hospitals.