For more than a month now, health workers in tertiary health institutions across the country have been on strike, grounding virtually all health facilities and services. The impact of the suspension of services cannot be quantified in terms of economic and monetary value alone. As a result of it, lives have been lost to the embarrassment of the nation.
Ironically, and because the relevant labour laws say so, the federal government is still paying their bills, their emoluments. Interestingly, their counterparts in the Nigerian Medical Association, the doctors, are also threatening to down tools if the government as much as accede to the demands of these health workers who are the nurses, pharmacists, radiographers, laboratory scientists and so on.
Unfortunately, strike by unions elsewhere is an exception, a last resort after all other avenues for resolving the issues at stake had been explored and exhausted. But in Nigeria, it is the first point of call embarked on at the least drop of the hat. For most Nigerians who bear the brunt of this unwholesome recourse to rascally behaviour, it is always a tale of woes as relations and friends die needlessly.
These incessant strikes have been identified as the major contributor to the country’s poor health indices, which give rise to most patients in the federal and state hospitals being exposed to untold hardship, sufferings and death. It has also resulted in patients seeking medical attention in the privately owned health facilities where cost of services is relatively higher. And those who cannot afford it, patronise traditional medicines with all its implications. Unarguably, many things have gone wrong in the Nigerian environment such that doctors and other health workers spend more time on strike than they spend in the hospitals.
The real issue is that for most labour unions, their leaders will not be seen to be active if there are no strikes. That may well explain why strikes have become, in most cases, instruments of blackmail used to coerce government into signing agreements which both parties know, ab initio, is impossible to implement.
But things, in our opinion, definitely have to change. The many strikes and counter strikes that have bedevilled the tertiary hospitals over sundry issues have weakened the health services, shown maximum disrespect for human lives, and jettisoned the established order that demand care for the sick. The danger right now is the outbreak of Ebola in Congo, which has claimed 26 lives already. Given the fluidity of our borders, the government is genuinely worried and has ordered for screening at the airport and other entry points to be intensified. But, unfortunately, the striking health workers are the ones to carry out the screening and we may be facing an epidemic if Ebola finds its way into the country.
While the strikes and threats of more are on, it is the opinion of this newspaper that there is need for an urgent overhaul of the reward system in the public service. The country needs to have a conversation on the issue. In particular, there is an urgent necessity to reverse the emerging trend where the government is the largest employer of labour. The emphasis should be on the private sector where employment, reward and punishment are based strictly on merit. But because of the liberal and generalised system of compensation in the public service that do not have any connection between hard work and reward, these developments that inconvenience the ordinary citizens and embarrasses the government will continue.
For instance, there should be a management system where doctors can be paid not on the basis of condition of service such as CONTIS or HATISS that the federal government has negotiated and imposed on state government too, but on the basis that two doctors of the same qualification need not go home with the same pay if one works harder than the other. It is the lazy ones among them who go into unionism to protect themselves and cover up their inadequacies.
Instead of lamenting the behaviour of those in its service, the government should rather do the needful to influence a change of behaviour in the public service as a whole. We insist that the government ought to take a holistic overview of the terms of engagement of workers across board. Even more than that, it must intensify efforts to incentivise the private sector to take more of the responsibility of providing employment for Nigerian job seekers. On the part of labour, they must be careful not to make itself irrelevant through the use of strikes and industrial actions to resolve issues that are better managed across the table.