The Federal Government has warned members of the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) to shelve their planned five-day warning strike, describing it as illegal.
The Minister of Labour and Employment, Sen. Chris Ngige issued the warning on Tuesday shortly after receiving a letter from the NARD executive, notifying him of the impending industrial action, billed to commence at midnight.
According to a statement by the ministry’s Director, Press and Public Relations, Olajide Oshundun, the letter dated May 16, 2023 was delivered to his office around 5 pm on the same day.
Upon receiving the letter, Ngige was said to have contacted the Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, who informed him that a meeting had been scheduled by his office with the resident doctors for Wednesday, May 17.
The labour minister advised the doctors to avail themselves of the opportunity for social dialogue with their employer, rather than embark on a warning strike, arguing that it was unknown to the law.
“I will advise them to attend the meeting with the Minister of Health tomorrow,” he was quoted as saying. “I will also advise them very strongly not to go on a five-day warning strike. There is nothing like a warning strike. A strike is a strike.”
Ngige cautioned that if they wanted to take the risk, the options were there.
“It is their decision. They have the right to strike. You cannot deny them that right. But their employer has another right under Section 43 of the Trade Dispute Act, to withhold their pay for those five days,” he said.
“So, if the NARD has strike funds to pay their members for those five days, no problem. The Health Minister will instruct the teaching hospitals to employ ad hoc people for those five days and they will use the money of the people who went on strike to pay the ad hoc doctors.”
He cited the International Labour Organization (ILO) principles at decent work, especially for those rendering essential services, adding that lives should be protected.
“One of my sons is a resident doctor, I will advise him to go to work and sign the attendance register. The people seen at work are the ones to receive their pay. If you don’t work, their will be no pay,” he said.
Commenting on the five demands of the doctors, Ngige argued the Federal Government lacked the powers to compel the states to domesticate the Medical Residency Training Fund (MRTF), since health is in the residual list, where both the federal and state governments have the powers to legislate.
According to him, the job of the Federal Government is to make policy and where the states disagree, they were at liberty to make their own policy.
The minister added that the Federal Government could not bully the states into domesticating the MRTF if they did not want to.
Regarding the issue of immediate payment of the MRTF to the union’s members, he said it was appropriated in the 2023 budget, but had not been released, as the 2022 budget was still running, adding that those in 2022 had all been paid.
Additionally, Ngige denied the claim by NARD that the Federal Government did not pay minimum wage consequential adjustment arrears to their members, saying that all workers in the education and health sectors, as well as the defence agencies, benefited from the adjustment.
He noted that the doctors could not declare a nationwide strike because some states were owing their members, pointing out that the Federal Government could not also dabble into the issue, being a state matter.
Similarly, the labour minister stated that the Federal Government as the executive arm of government could not intervene in the bill at the National Assembly to bond doctors for five years, as it is a private member’s bill.
According to him, any intervention by the executive on the matter impinges on the autonomy and independence of the legislative arm of government.
Ngige said although the bill had passed through first and second readings, he was sure it would be shot down at the public hearing, since the law prohibits forced labour.
He advised the doctors not to talk about 200 percent pay rise, as it was not feasible.
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Besides all the government has done for doctors and other workers in the health sector, according to Ngige, such as an upward review of hazard allowances, the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) was already negotiating with the Federal Ministry of Health, National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission and the Presidential Committee on Salaries on a pay rise for doctors.
“It is incongruous for student doctors to embark on strike when consultants training them were already negotiating with the Federal Government,” he said.