The Nigerian government is in a dilemma as medical doctors on Tuesday warned it against acceding to some demands over which other workers in the health sector have called a strike.
The doctors who specifically opposed salary adjustment and harmonization, one of the major demands of the Joint Health Staff Union (JOHESU), said acceding to the demand would precipitate a crisis that may lead to the collapse of the health sector of the country.
JOHESU, the association of other health workers apart from medical doctors and dentists, on Monday announced its members will begin an indefinite strike from Tuesday night.
The association had called a nationwide strike last September.
Some of its major demands included salary adjustments, promotion arrears and improved work environment for members.
On the ninth day of the September strike, the union struck a deal with government.
But according to the union, six months after, government is yet to meet any of its demands.
Last month, the union gave the government a 30-day ultimatum to meet the demands. That ultimatum elapses Tuesday.
However, in an apparent continuation of the rivalry among health workers in Nigeria, the doctors, under the banner of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), described JOHESU as an ‘illegal body’ and urged government to ignore its threat.
“JOHESU is an illegal body. it is illegal because it is not registered. Just yesterday their leadership came on air to attack doctors, the strike they are planning is against medical doctors”, the NMA president, Mike Ogirima, said at a press briefing on Tuesday.
The NMA insisted it is opposed to some of the demands by JOHESU, in particular about salary harmonisation.
“Nobody is preventing them (JOHESU) from getting a salary increase. But all over the world, there is relativity package for medical workers different from other health workers.
“In Nigeria and other countries, doctors are always at advantaged position, that is why most of these other health workers are trying by all means to get that degree called medical doctor. But we know the difference because doctors are trained in all paraphernalia of medical practice, that is why all over the world doctors have a different salary package from others”, Mr Ogirima said.
He advised the government to thread with caution in engaging with JOHESU so as not to “allow rascality in the health sector.”
“It is high time the government regulated the activities of this JOHESU, we are not going to fight with them, we are humane and the health of our patients is central.”
Chiedozie Achonwa, the NMA chairman in Abuja, said medical doctors will be in the hospitals and continue to attend to patients even if JOHESU members across the nation embark on the proposed strike.
“I think everybody is entitled to make demands for an increase in salary including JOHESU. But what the government should put into consideration is that there is an internationally accepted relativity in remuneration for health workers and that relativity must be maintained. Any attempt to distort that relativity means they want the health sector to collapse and I don’t think any of us wants that.
“We as medical doctors are not interested in strike. We are interested in the lives of our patients and doing medical outreach,” Mr Achonwa said.
The NMA had earlier in an open letter to the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, said doctors are not prepared to receive same salary with other health workers.
Top on the list of issues raised in the October 3 letter was that JOHESU has no justification to demand for adjustment of salary scale as was done for CONMESS.
Consolidated Medical Salary Structure, CONMESS, is the salary structure for medical and dental officers in the federal public service while Consolidated Health Salary Structure, CONHESS, is the salary structure for pharmacists, medical laboratory, nurses and other health workers in the health sector of the federal public service.
The National Vice Chairman of JOHESU, Ogbonna Chimela on Tuesday however explained that the unions are not asking for salary harmonisation with medical doctors but for an adjusted CONHESS salary.
Mr. Chimela gave more insight on the salary issue.
“In 2009 the government approved the CONHESS and CONMESS salary structures, the former for medical doctors while the latter is for other health care professionals.
“Before, medical doctors enter service on grade level 9 while the rest of us enter on 8 but after the 2009 negotiation of salary structure, medical doctors started entering service on grade level 12 while we enter at that same 8.
“So relativity had been established at the point of entry because they spent six years in school while other health workers spend five or four years, so you can see the years of training of the both groups are different that, is why government allows doctors to enter service at grade level 12 while we enter at 8 to maintain relativity.
“In 2014 there was an adjustment to the CONMESS salary and we are just agitating for our own to also be adjusted. So tell me if our salary is adjusted by 20 percent and we are on grade level 8, can it be the same as some one entering service on grade level 12?
“They are thinking that we want to start asking for same quantum of salary with them, but it can never be the same because our point of entry differs because if I enter service at grade level 8, before I can get to grade level 12, I would have spent nine years in service.
“So there is no way our paths can ever cross, they will continue to gain more until they leave service. So they are the ones that are even oppressing us, they just don’t want our own adjustment to see the light of the day,” he said.
On the allegation that JOHESU is an illegal body, the union leader also gave an explanation.
He said the unions that make up JOHESU in the health sector were registered by Decree 22 of 1978.
He isted the unions as Senior Staff Associations of Universities, Teaching Hospitals and Research Institutes; National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives; Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria; Nigerian Union of Allied Health Professionals and Non Academic Staff Union (NASU).
Mr. Chimela said the five unions came together and formed JOHESU as an umbrella body due to constant pressure from NMA.
“So if the parent entities are registered but because of the pressure from NMA, we now formed a pressure group, would you say it is illegal? The parent bodies are legitimately registered and known by law.”
On Monday, the Health Minister, Isaac Adewole, said the government was already working out modalities to avert JOHESU members going on strike.
“We are reaching out to abort the strike. Almost all demands have been met. Government is looking into remaining issues to address them comprehensively,” he said.
It remains to be seen, however, how the government will pacify JOHESU members without provoking the medical doctors.