Again, Lagos doctors, state government head for showdown

Doctors performing surgery on a patient

The bitter relationship between the Lagos State government and medical doctors under its employ is brewing a fresh round of industrial action in the state owned hospitals.

While the doctors accuse Governor Babatunde Fashola of victimisation after a two-month old national strike last July, the state government insists its ‘No Work, No Pay’ policy is in accordance with relevant labour laws.

On July 1, medical doctors working in government owned hospitals across the country embarked on an industrial action to press home a 24-point demand they wanted the government to act upon.

Some of the doctors’ concerns include poor working conditions, meagre hazard allowances, and dilapidated facilities in public hospitals.

The doctors shelved their strike on August 25, at the peak of the Ebola virus outbreak in Nigeria, but on the grounds that no doctor would be penalised for joining in the strike.

The Lagos State government, however, had stuck to its guns, refusing to pay the doctors’ August salaries.

Even their September salaries are still unpaid.

At a press conference organised by the Medical Guild, an umbrella body of doctors employed by the state government, on Thursday, the doctors accused the government of planning to provoke them into another round of strike.

In his seven paged speech, Biyi Kufo, Chairman of the Medical Guild, accused the Lagos State government of hating the doctors “with a morbid passion.”

No love lost

The Lagos State government and its medical doctors have a history of acrimonious relationship which peaked in April last year when Mr. Fashola sacked all 788 doctors employed by the state government for their refusal to respond to queries on why they embarked on a strike.

The 2013 doctors’ strike was the climax of a deep-seated animosity the doctors began nursing four years earlier when the state government sacked a doctor for addressing a press conference.

In 2008, a Medical Guild election which threw up Ibrahim Olaifa as Chairman was hotly disputed by the state government, an action that was an unprecedented as it was surprising to the doctors.

One year later, Dr. Olaifa was dismissed from service after the state government accused him of speaking to journalists during a press briefing organised by the guild.

The resultant strike by the doctors to protest the government’s action led to Olayiwola Agara, a doctor who was on a routine strike monitoring, being beaten into a coma and hospitalised for weeks.

By 2012, the crisis has risen to the fore with the doctors complaining about a loss of years of service due to the government’s non-implementation of the Consolidated Medical Salaries Scale (CONMESS).

In protest, the doctors embarked on a three day warning strike in April 2012 leading to the government issuing queries to the doctors and invitations to disciplinary boards, and using armed police officers to disperse a subsequent meeting by the doctors.

When the doctors refused to answer to queries on why they were absent from work for three days, the state government responded swiftly and axed all of them.

The government followed up its actions by withholding the May 2012 salaries of the doctors citing a ‘No Work, No Pay’ policy, even though it released the circular for the policy in November of that year.

“No group of people working for the Lagos State government had been sacked for going on strike before this, and though many have embarked on strikes after that time, none have been given that treatment,” Dr. Kufo said during Thursday’s press conference.

In his initial reaction to the doctors’ complaints, Jide Idris, the Lagos State Health Commissioner, advised the doctors to meet with their employer, the Lagos State Health Service Commission, and the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, LASUTH, board, who would make recommendations for the salaries to be paid.

‘Casual doctors’

Following the events of 2012, the Lagos State government began casualisation of doctors, a contract appointment that attracts no entitlements and career growth for the doctors and a termination of their appointment at a moment’s notice.

About 400 doctors were employment by the state government on contract appointments in 2012.

“New measures are thought up daily to ensure discomfort at the workplace,” Dr. Kufo said.

“Based upon these facts, the Medical Guild has come to the inescapable conclusion that this administration hates doctors with a morbid passion.

“We have continually pointed out inconsistencies and selectiveness in the application of laws by the Lagos State administration, who will insist that they ‘will not pay any new wage because the federal government cannot impose anything on us,’ but were the first to implement the new federal tax regime, stating that ‘tax is the exclusive preserve of the federal government and there is nothing we can do to alter it.’

The Medical Guild said the state government had set out to hound its members into submission but that the doctors would not be intimidated.

A House of Assembly decision, last January, to allow doctors to be represented at government’s disciplinary panels was ignored by the state, the doctors say.

“It has come to our knowledge that these actions are part of an orchestrated plan to provoke the Medical Guild into another strike, in order to complete the objectives, but as we are mindful of the adverse effects that this would have on the populace, we have refused to take that bait as of yet,” said Dr. Kufo.

“The administration’s relationship with members of sundry unions is far better than its relationship with its doctors.

In its response to the doctors’ request for their salaries to be paid, the Lagos State government said it stands by its decision not to pay the medical officers.

In the letter seen by PREMIUM TIMES, the Dr. Idris acknowledged the receipt of a September 9 letter from the doctors in which they justified their participation in the July 1 doctors’ nationwide strike.

“You will recall however that prior to the commencement of the industrial action, Government had in a quest to promote harmonious relationship between labour and Government, resolved that in the process of waiting for resolution of nay dispute or issuance of award, there shall be no lockouts or strikes in line Section 18 of the Trade Dispute Act,” read the government’s response dated 16th October, 2014, and signed by Dr. Idris.

“Accordingly, Government emphasized through circular Ref NO: CIR/HOS/12/VOLI/115 of 1st November 2012, that the policy of ‘No Work, No Pay’ and disciplinary process for unauthorized absence from work shall be strictly enforced in accordance with relevant labour legislation and Civil Service Rules.

“Having considered your request, the position of Government in this wise remains sacrosanct hence the decision to stand by it.

“To this end, it is hoped that issues of unpaid salaries would be put to rest while every effort is doubled to ensure that the continuous delivery of qualitative and equitable healthcare services to the good people of Lagos State is achieved.”

Currently, the August and September salaries of medical doctors in state owned hospitals in Lagos remain unpaid, as well as that of May 2012.

A doctor who did not want to be named for fear of victimisation said the action of the Lagos State government against his colleagues “has become personal.”

“This hatred of doctors is too much,” he said.

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