Minister of Labour and Employment Senator Chris Ngige has said the federal government withheld salaries of health workers who embarked on strike in 2018 because the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention allowed employers to hold back salaries of workers on essential services anytime they withdraw their services.
Ngige also said that by the oath of the medical profession, professionals are not supposed to embark on strike because the services they render have to do with human lives, which if lost cannot be regained.
The Minister, who spoke in an interview at his residence in Abuja at the weekend, said the government did not apply the same policy on the striking members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnic (ASUP) because the lecturers can recover lost ground by teaching extra hours.
He also said the Minister of Education did not write to request for permission from his Ministry in accordance with the law requesting for permission to apply the no work, no pay rule.
While the government was yet to pay the salaries of health workers on the platform of the Joint Health Sector Unions for the period of April and May 2018 when they were on strike, they failed to apply the same rule on the striking lecturers, withdrawing the notice barely 24 hours after it was issued.
Health workers have alleged they are being punished because the Minister of Labour and his health counterparts are medical doctors.
Explaining what led to the invocation of the policy on the health workers, the Minister said: “When they went on strike in 2018, I told them as the conciliator, ‘’call off your strike to make for meaningful discussions so that no one will be under duress’.
“They started the discussion with health and it broke down, they were still on strike and they came to me and when they came to me I said I will not conciliate anymore because if I apprehend a strike they must call off.
“If you don’t call off I only have two things to do. It is either I send you to industry aberration panel or I can send you direct to a National Industry Court of Nigeria NICN.
“They refused to call off and the health ministry wrote me and informed me that they are invoking ‘no work, no pay’ which is section 43 of the trade dispute act which say that when a worker leaves his work and goes away, the employer is not obliged to pay during those periods.
“In many of the principles and conventions and decided cases that came to the committee on freedom of association and the committee on labour standards; the ILO have rules that apply to essential services.
“They defined essential services as those services in which when the worker withdraw his services, such withdrawal will cause interruption that will lead to lose of lives and safety on a national scale or provincial scale or you have a national calamity, the employer is permitted to withhold wages.
“It went further to say that in withholding wages, the employer can also replace such staff to make the business run and if it is a hospital; saves lives.
“They have started comparing issues and saying that health minister and myself are doctors and because of that, we said that the salaries should be ceased or withheld.
“But the labour laws are clear in section 43 that if there is withdrawal of services especially when it is done illegally or done by an essential service person, you have right to withdraw with those salaries or wages to enable you put someone else there.
“This is the position; you can’t compare a worker who is in charge of dialysis or nursing services to a lecturer because once a life is lost in the period of strike you can’t replace it while a lecturer can teach day and night to make up for the lost grounds that is why the labour act and the ILO defines essential services and makes particular clearance for them.
“It is not that I hate anybody or the health minister hates anybody. But this is what it is and this is enforced by the fact that some doctors who went on strike in some hospitals in 2016 had their money ceased at federal medical centre Owerri and Jos.
“They withdrew their services unjustly and because they are essential services workers, section 43 of the law applies to them.
“They came back in 2018 to beg me to beg Health Minister and I said you are my colleagues but I couldn’t and I won’t because the lives lost at that time, we can’t replace them.
“I am a doctor and I have never gone on strike in my life because it is against the doctoral oath. Even those nurses, it is against their oath. So for me, once you are on essential services and you want to withdraw your services it must have its consequences as far as I am concerned.”
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