Strange things happen and the proposed bill in the House of Representatives, to amend the Trade Disputes Act, with a view to outlawing workers in the health sector from embarking on strike action, is one of them. The bill, if passed into law, will affect only medical professionals in government employment — federal, state and local government.
The bill, titled, “An Act to amend the Trade Disputes Act, cap T8, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 to prohibit medical practitioners in the employment of federal, state and local governments in the essential service sector from embarking on strikes and to accelerate administrative and judicial proceedings in the determination of trade disputes involving them, and related matters”, is being sponsored by Simon Atige, member of the House of Representatives, representing Igboeze North/Udenu Federal Constituency of Enugu State.
The bill seeks to amend Section 17 of the Trade Disputes Act, 2004 by creating subsection 2, which provides thus : “Where a trade dispute has been declared by an organisation of medical practitioners employed by or under the government of the federation or of a state or of a local government or any municipal or statutory authority in a government hospital or medical centre or otherwise in the treatment of the sick or the prevention of disease or the Minister has received a report of a dispute concerning such an organisation, the organisation may approach the National Industrial Court for a resolution of the dispute provided that at the time of the organisation’s approach to the court, the Minister is also notified by the organisation and all processes are served on all the parties.
The bill also seeks to create subsection 3, which states that, “Subject to the requirement of fair hearing, the National Industrial Court may abridge procedures and time stipulations for the purpose of a speedy resolution of the dispute”.
The leadership of the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) and the Joint Health Sector Union (JOHESU) have lambasted members of the House of Representatives over plans to ban health workers from embarking on strike, describing the proposed law as draconian and an assault on the democratic rights, including freedom of expression, of health sector employees.
Spokesman of JOHESU, Olumide Akintayo, queries why lawmakers would dissipate energy as well as waste time and taxpayers’ resources on bills meant to trample on the rights of Nigerian workers.
It is important for the House of Representatives to note that workers’ do not embark on industrial actions just for the sake of doing so. It is unresolved issues between employers and employees that lead workers to go on strike after exhausting available channels of peaceful resolution.
The leadership of NARD and JOHESU are positing that rather than dissipate energy trying to outlaw industrial actions, the House of Representatives should first create a system where workers would not have a reason to go on strike.
Specifically, the Unions are saying that “The House of Representatives should first promulgate laws that prohibit government from reneging on agreements it enters into with health workers”. They recommend that there should be laws preventing government from delaying payment of salaries and entitlements to workers. Government should also not delay the implementation of promotions. They equally said the House of Representatives should promulgate laws that make it mandatory for government to improve infrastructure in hospitals and ensure availability of medical consumables at all times.
One big consequence, if this bill sails through, is that it will worsen the already problematic issue of brain drain as health workers will leave the country in droves, to other countries where facilities and conditions of service are better, and the efforts of the Nigerian health workers would be better appreciated.
The proposed bill is clearly against the right of workers to express their grievances through peaceful negotiation, and as a last resort, embarking on strike action.
However well-intentioned the planned law is, its merits cannot negate the fact that workers’ right to industrial action, irrespective of where they are employed — public or private sector, health or any other sector — is a universal, democratic right that cannot be taken away from them via legislation.
Considering the fact that the proposed bill is a clear infringement on the rights of workers in the health sector, and the fact that, if signed into law, it would worsen the problem of brain drain in the country, all well-meaning Nigerians must rise to resist this proposed draconian bill from seeing the light of day.