The government and the National Labour Commission (NLC) have issued their strongest reaction yet to the industrial action currently crippling the country's health delivery efforts.
In a response to the impasse, the Government Spokesperson on Social Services, Mr Kofi Amponsah-Bediako, expressed regret at the action of the health workers and said the time had come “to apply the law as it is and we mean business”.
The NLC, in a separate statement at the weekend, described the workers' action as illegal, pointing out that “legitimate rights cannot be pursued using illegitimate means”.
Mr Amponsah-Bediako called on the Health Workers Group (HWG) to call off its strike and return to the negotiating table to seek redress to its grievances.
Short of that, he warned, the government would be compelled to apply sanctions under the law, including the withholding of salaries, suspension and dismissal if the striking workers failed to heed the appeal.
Mr Amponsah-Bediako said the government would not allow the HWG to hold the nation to ransom, nor would the government succumb to any action which would lead to the dislocation of wages and salaries.
“We can't pamper, pamper and over pamper. I think we need to put our feet down and be firm. We have to apply the law as it is and we mean business,” he said in a stern tone in an interview with the Daily Graphic.
The NLC statement said the week-old strike by the HWG was not in conformity with the Labour Act, 2003 (Act 651).
It, however, called on the Ministry of Health, as the ultimate employer of the health workers, to immediately state its final position on the demands being made by the HWG, since the delay in doing so was not helping matters.
Mr Amponsah-Bediako said the government was deeply worried by the action of the HWG because it had kept faith with health workers over the years, claiming that since 2002/2003 the salaries of health workers had been increased five-fold.
“Having come this far, with other workers not having the same treatment, we think it is morally fair for the HWG to exercise patience and restraint and allow their brothers and sisters in the other sectors to also be adjusted upward a bit,” he remarked.
“We agree that health is essential but that does not mean that all the money should go into the health sector. So if they have been treated fairly up to this point, it is just good that they allow the government to also look at other workers, especially at this time when we want to be fair to all categories of workers in this ,” he added.
On the citing of high job risk by health workers as a basis for their demands, the government spokesperson said much as that was appreciated, the health workers ought to also appreciate the fact that every job had risks and, therefore, they should be reasonable in their demands.
He asked all professionals, particularly those in the health sector, to pay attention to ethical values, stressing that money was not the ultimate but professionalism, ethical values, sacrifice and patriotism were.
In spite of the warning by the government and the outlaw of their strike by the NLC, the health workers have remained resolute in their action as they continued to stay away from work for the seventh day yesterday.
Some flyers posted on the buildings in some of the hospitals read; “HWG calling for their new salary structure now!” and “HWG — no retreat, no surrender”.
When the Daily Graphic visited the La General Hospital, the Ridge Hospital and the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital, all in Accra, yesterday, the impact of the strike was very visible as there were few activities going on in view of the skeleton staff at post.
Clinical service was one of the areas badly hit by the strike at the La General Hospital, while at the Ridge Hospital, both clinical and maternity services were reeling under the strike.
At the time of the visit to the La General Hospital, there was a large number of patients at the Outpatients Department (OPD) waiting to receive attention, while at the Ridge and the Korle-Bu Teaching hospitals there were fewer patients at the OPDs.
It was observed that some members of the HWG, had decided not to desert their patients but they had to attend to them without wearing their uniforms for fear of reprisal from their militant colleagues.
Last Friday, some members of the HWG were alleged to have attacked some of their colleagues at the Ridge Hospital, for “undermining their cause”.
The Medical Superintendent of the Ridge Hospital, Dr George Acquaye, said although some of the health workers were willing to work, they feared being attacked by their colleagues.
He said the situation was not the best and appealed for the early resolution of the impasse, adding that confrontation could never solve any problem but dialogue.
The Medical Superintendent of the La General Hospital, Dr Patrick Frimpong, said the hospital was doing its best under the circumstances but stressed the need for an amicable solution to the impasse to ensure the provision of quality healthcare services.
He urged the parties in dispute to soften their stance and be guided by the interest of the nation.
The Public Relations Officer of the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital, Mr Mustapha Salifu, added his voice to the appeal to the health workers to resume work while negotiations on their grievances continued.
Meanwhile, the Minister of Health, Major Courage Quashigah (retd), has said that the strike embarked upon by the HWG amounts to passing death sentence on innocent patients.
He said it did not make sense to subject innocent patients to such trauma, since it was the calling of health workers to save lives and not to “kill”.
The minister said this at the opening of a five-day seminar for pharmaceutical companies and selected herbal and cosmetic industries in Accra yesterday.
He congratulated doctors in the Eastern, Central, Volta and the Northern regions on defying calls from the leadership of the HWG on doctors to join their nation-wide strike.
He said the government was not “sleeping” over the concerns raised by personnel in the health sector, adding that the grievances over the salary disparities of health professionals were being addressed.
“We are in consultation with the government and I can assure the health workers that the government will not renege on its promise,” he added.
In a related development, the leadership of the HWG has expressed concern about alleged threats of intimidation against its members by the management of the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital.
A memorandum signed by the National Secretary, Mr Abu D. Kuntulo, made reference to a letter purported to have been written by the Chief Executive Officer of Korle-Bu, Prof Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, directing unit heads and administrators to submit the list of absentee workers who were perceived to be on strike by close of work each day, with effect from May 2, 2007, for the necessary action to be taken.
According to the memorandum, Section 63(2) clause (i) of the Labour Law indicated that the termination of a worker's employment was considered unfair if the only reason was that the worker refused or intended to refuse to work to enable him or her to participate in a lawful industrial action.
Story by Kofi Yeboah
& Sebastian Syme