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NWOKENTA: We Did Not Call Off Our Strike, We Only Suspended It

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Comrade Ibe Stephen Nwokenta is the Chairman of the Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU) Lagos State Chapter. In this interview with PAUL ADUNWOKE, he explained the gains and losses of the recent industrial action embarked upon by JOHESU, which has now been suspended.

What is responsible for the incessant strike action embarked upon by health sector workers?
WE requested for extension of retirement age from 60 to 65 years, we also asked for adjustment of salary and other things.

You may recall last year that JOHESU wanted to go on strike but due to the ravaging deadly Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), we saw it as irresponsible to be on strike while the country is in a serious problem.

But doctors did not mind, they went on strike and spent 52 days. And why did they go on strike? The doctors do not want the government to implement JOEHSU’s request. Returning from the strike, the federal government paid the doctors two months arrears and salary adjustment, but the federal government left other health workers behind, not implementing our demands.

The circular that contains most of our demands is yet to be released. This is great injustice to health workers. Can you imagine they selected one profession out of three in the hospital system for upward salary adjustment and left the remaining two. Yet, we all attend the same markets, our children are in the same school, we buy fuel at the same price, and we pay the same house rent.

Now, doctors decide what federal government does in the health sector, but the repercussion would come later because it is unfair, that was why we proceeded on strike.
Has government met with some of your demands to make you call off the strike?

We did not call off the strike, it was suspended; we can resume at any moment. Leaders of JOHESU are responsible leaders, they held a meeting with President Jonathan and since he promised that the Federal Government would look into the problem and resolve it once and for all, we decided to suspend the strike. We also listened to well meaning Nigerians, who have been pleading with us, we had to give them respect because patients were suffering and dying.

It is true that whenever we went on strike the hospitals are paralysed and doctors capitalise on that to divert patients to their private clinics and extort patients heavily in the name of treatment.

We also look at the political situation in the country. As responsible leaders, we decided to suspend the strike in order to help the government and Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to make sure that 2015 general election is conducted peacefully and nobody would be disenfranchised in the name of strike or any other thing.
What is your view on government threatening to replace striking health workers with new recruits?

We are not afraid of losing our jobs. However, I don’t think they can sack our members.

Federal Government has not said it wants to sack health workers because they are on strike. It was the Chief Medical Director of Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) that wanted casual workers to take the jobs of our members in LUTH, but we said no, that it will not work and it can never work. We are not going to tolerate casuals in the health sector.
Is it true that the incessant strike is fueled by competition among the medical personnel?

Yes, the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) wants to prove that they are next to God. Doctors want to claim sole management and control of hospitals, when a hospital setting requires teamwork among all the medical personnel in the system, to ensure effective healthcare delivery.

Some doctors who acted, as medical directors were not qualified to manage the hospital because after eight years of their tenure, the hospital would be paralysed. This is why it is sometimes not good to appoint someone from the College of Medicine to head the hospital.

Though doctors claim to be superior but they chose to study medicine while others preferred to study pharmacy; some other person decided to study health information. Doctors can never be accountants or administrators, but you now see doctors performing the work of administrators, where they do not have the competence.

Doctors would not be fit to head health welfare or social departments, neither records nor x-ray departments, but they claim to be the most important in the hospital setting. This is one of the reasons we like to let the Federal Government know that without health workers, there would be no health industry in Nigeria.
What other ways can the association take on government, apart from strike?

It does not mean that we derive any pleasure by going on strike, but the fact remains that it is the language the Federal Government understands better.
Is it true that health workers lock up medical facilities and equipments in the hospitals while going on strike?

When doctors went on strike, they never allowed any other doctor from the private hospitals to come to the hospital to treat patients in the consulting room. If you look at it, health files and records are property of health workers. X-ray machines are under the care of health workers. So, we locked them so that hoodlums would not vandalise the hospitals. If the hospital is vandalised, people would believe it is the health workers. This is the reason whenever we go on strike; we make sure that we lock up the facilities and equipments, to ensure that they are under our control for security reasons.
Is it true that the court has made a pronouncement on your case?

It is true. That is why I said that government has abandoned the judgment of a competent court. A competent court passed a judgment in favour of health workers but NMA said no.

So, I don’t think we are going back to court again because of the ugly experience we had.
During the strike, did JOHESU members receive their salaries and allowances?

Yes, labour law gives us that permission because when NMA, which is not even a trade union, went on strike, government paid them, but we are members of a trade union. Labour law says after three months of declaring strike and following the due process, workers are entitled to their salaries. It is after three months, if government could not solve the problem, and the trade union is guilty in the process of declaring the strike, then government would stop the salaries.

But if the workers are not guilty, they are entitled to their salary till the strike is over or till their demand is met.
If you were the President, what will you do to solve the problem of the health sector?

I will bring all the professionals in the sector and see them as one and ensure they work as a team. I will not allow any of the professionals to dictate what I should do. I would recognise all the professionals; if there is any agreement, I would make sure it is implemented.



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