By G9ija

The Federal Government, on Sunday, described as ridiculous a threat by the Joint Health Sector Union to embark on a strike.

The Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, who stated this in an interview with one of our correspondents in Abuja, said the Federal Government would on Tuesday meet with leadership of JOHESU.

The union, through its President, Josiah Biobelemonye, had given a 15-day ultimatum to the labour minister and other stakeholders on Saturday in Abuja.

The union had decried what it described as the nonchalant attitude of the Federal Government to attend to lingering issues concerning its members in a letter to the minister.

Some of the issues, according to JOHESU, are the adjustment of the Consolidated Health Salary Structure as was done with the Consolidated Medical Salary Structure since 2014; payment of withheld April and May 2018 salaries of members and withheld salaries in the Federal Medical Centre, Owerri; the Jos University Teaching Hospital; and the Lagos University Teaching Hospital; and the review of the defective implementation of COVID-19 Special Inducement and Hazard Allowance.

Others are the implementation of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria’s alternative dispute resolution, consent judgment and other court judgments, increase in the retirement age from 60 to 65 years for health workers and 70 years for consultant health professionals.

JOHESU consists of associations of nurses, pharmacists, laboratory scientists and other health workers. If the union makes good its threat, government hospitals in the country will be paralysed.

On Saturday last week, the NMA issued a 21-day strike notice to the Federal Government with effect from Monday, August 30, over its failure to meet the demands of the National Association of Resident Doctors, which commenced its strike on August 2.

Federal Government worried
Ngige told one of our correspondents that the government was worried that health practitioners were planning to embark on another strike.

He, however, said some of the issues raised were already being discussed.

He added that it was against one of the principles of the International Labour Organisation to issue strike notice on issues that were already being discussed.

Such a step, he said, was tantamount to intimidating the other party.

The minister said, “Why will the government not worry? They have also taken the issue of ultimatum to a ridiculous level. Some of the issues they raised are issues that are already being addressed.

“One of the rules of engagement and the ILO principle of negotiation is that when you are on a negotiating table, you don’t issue strike notices. It becomes an intimidation to the other party.

“Anyway, before they issued this, we had proposed to meet with them on Tuesday. I will be surprised if they have not received our letter, because I issued instructions for them to meet us at the Presidential Committee on Salaries and Wages on Tuesday.

“We shall be discussing their old demands, because if you look at their strike threat, there are certain things that are no issues for me, which I have never conciliated before.

“Issues like consultancy for pharmacists and nurses, nobody has brought that to my table as a point of dispute. Issues of dieticians and their entry scale, I have never discussed it with them before.

“These are new and if they are new, they will discuss it with their employer first and when they fail to reach an agreement, they can come to me. I am not their employer; their employer is the Ministry of Health.”

Ngige said the union was expected to discuss the issue of entry point with the parent ministry in conjunction with the Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation.

“My meeting on Tuesday is to look at the hazard allowance discussion, which we have been having. If there are slipovers from the old Memorandum of Action as they claimed, then we will look at them and know why the government people have not effected our agreement, if they have not done so,” he added.

When asked if he would also be reaching out to the Nigerian Medical Association, which has also issued an ultimatum, the minister disclosed that he would also be meeting with the leadership a day or two after his meeting with JOHESU.

He said the government decided to separate the meetings because previous collective bargaining did not yield positive results.

Ngige explained, “The meeting with the NMA will come later, a day or two after that of JOHESU. We have decided to separate them because previous negotiations or collective bargaining meetings with them have not yielded anything. We have met like four times at the State House.

“So, we will take them sector by sector as allowed by the Negotiating Act. They are not doing the same work. They belong to different categories of workers.

“If any category of workers tells you they don’t want to negotiate with others, you grant their request. That is what we are doing.

“Maybe we will fast-track our talks on hazard allowance so that they won’t keep saying it is the government that is drawing them back, whereas their inability to agree collectively is pulling back discussions.

“We started this discussion in March and we are now in September. The government is doing its own beat. The government says we have N37.5bn for your hazard allowance; that is what we want to budget and so we have put it on the table and asked them to give us a sharing formula viz-a-viz the existing hazard allowance that the government is paying to some groups of workers in the universities.

“Those workers in laboratories in the universities are earning N15,000 a month for junior workers and N30,000 for senior workers. So, that is our benchmark from which we are negotiating with them.”

The spokesman for JOHESU, Olumide Akintayo, also confirmed to The PUNCH that the union had received an invitation to Tuesday’s meeting and would be attending.

Akintayo said, “There are tentative meetings on September 7 and 14 with the labour and health ministries, respectively. The meetings will hold if the Federal Government goes ahead with them.

“Health professionals and workers need to be well before they can take care of other people. If the Federal Government fails to meet the demands dating back to 2014, it suggests insensitivity and oppression. We need to solve the problems once and for all.

“Of course, we have received the letter from them and we will be meeting them to resolve these issues.

“Like I have always said, JOHESU is a mature union and we are sensitive to the yearnings of Nigerians; we have no reason to go on a strike if our issues are resolved amicably.

“For now, the ultimatum still stands until we meet and things are adequately resolved.”

Akintayo lambasted Ngige for describing the unions’ demands as laughable.

On its part, NARD accused the minister of allegedly feeding the Presidency with false information as regards meeting its demands.

The National President, NARD, Uyilawa Okhuaihesuyi, disclosed the association’s stance in an interview with The PUNCH.

He said Ngige was feeding the Presidency with false information.

“The first thing was claiming that the court ordered the doctors to go back to work, which is not true,” he stated.

FG gives condition for withdrawal of case in court
Meanwhile, Ngige has said the government is ready to withdraw the case it instituted against the resident doctors if they resume work.

The minister said, “I briefed Mr President and we have agreed that they should come back to work and if they come back to work, we can take other things from there; we’ll drop the case in court and then they will come back and get things done.

“The Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission, in conjunction with the Office of the Head of Service, had a meeting and they are jointly going to do a circular that will be issued for salaries, incomes and wages to reiterate that house officers and youth corps doctors are still on the CONMES scales one and two, respectively. So, I think we are doing the implementation.

“Also, from the monitoring meeting we held this morning, the Ministry of Health has got the list of doctors, who supposedly are to benefit from the Medical Residency Training Fund.

“Total submission of about 8,000 names was obtained and the Ministry of Health is scrutinising them. We have done the first round of scrutiny and they will now compare what they have with the Postgraduate Medical College’s list and the chief medical directors, who submitted the names.

“The Association of Resident Doctors in each of the tertiary centres worked with the CMDs to produce those names, but now that the names are being verified, we discovered that about 2,000 names shouldn’t be there, because they don’t have what is called Postgraduate Reference Numbers of the National Postgraduate Medical College and (or) that of the West African Postgraduate Medical College.

“So, this is it and that is the only thing holding back the Residency Fund payment, because it is there already…incurred expenditure has been done by the finance minister and it’s in the accountant-general’s office. So, once they verify the authenticity of those they are submitting, the accountant-general will pay.

“We are doing that verification because we do not want what happened last time in 2020 to reoccur; in 2020, the submitted names didn’t come through the appropriate source, which is the Postgraduate Medical College, and payment was affected and it was discovered that about 588 persons, who were not resident doctors, benefited from such money and they are now finding it difficult to make the full refund, but they have to refund that money.

“Some are refunding, but there is no full reconciliation of the account. That account has to be reconciled to enable the accountants to pay the next round of fund for 2021.

“That’s what I briefed Mr President about and we also discussed some policies, which are not for public consumption now. We take it in strides as the days come by; we also discussed politics and the state of our party.”