Ending the cycle of incessant strikes

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FALLING sick and requiring hospitalisation is a high risk, life-threatening predicament in Nigeria. Health workers – from doctors and pharmacists to nurses, laboratory technicians and administrative clerks – take turns to cripple health care services in public health institutions. At a time of recession, high unemployment and social tensions, the impact is devastating. Nigerians should seize the opportunity of the recent spate of industrial strife in the public sector to find a permanent solution to the crisis in public administration.

Workers under the banner of the Joint Health Sector Unions on Saturday announced a qualified suspension of their two-week-old strike that had crippled services at federal, states and local government-run health institutions nationwide. Theirs had followed a similar withdrawal of services by resident doctors who also laid the system low for two weeks. The endless relay had seen an indefinite strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities which also suspended hostilities after grounding academic operations in public universities for 36 days. As ASUU called a truce, teaching staff of polytechnics and colleges of education launched their own campaigns. To complete the cycle, non-academic staff of tertiary educational institutions also renewed agitation and the embattled government is at its wits end trying to defend from multiple fronts.

Public sector workers’ strikes have become a permanent feature in Nigeria. Such sporadic action is ongoing in many states, exacerbated by a public sector financial crisis in which some 23 states are perennially unable to meet their wage bills. The private sector joins in occasionally. The absurdity in the Nigerian case was revealed last week when the oil workers’ and electricity unions called a strike partly to protest the government’s indebtedness to oil marketers. Workers now strike on behalf of their employers and business patrons!

           Strikes, according to experts, impose costs not only on the affected sector, but on other sectors of the economy and society, including lost productive output, technological growth and on development. For a society that disdains statistics, putting a figure on the economic cost of strikes is tricky, but Babatunde Fashola, the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, provided a clue in August last year when he said that labour unrest by power and gas sectors workers cost government and employers about N7.73 billion between April 2014 and March 2016. A strike by public sector workers in 2016 cost India £2 billion just as similar strikes by 1.3 million workers contributed to the 6.7 per cent GDP deficit in South Africa in 2010/11.

           There are too many strikes in Nigeria’s public sector and the government should find a solution. Disputes between workers and employers are a natural consequence of industrial relations and occur worldwide. Collective bargaining and lawful agitation for better pay and working conditions are accepted as inalienable rights enshrined in international agreements to which Nigeria is a signatory.  In Nigeria and elsewhere, workers have often joined mass movements to effect changes, fight for rights and even revolutions as well-organised pressure groups. Nigerian workers were in the vanguard of the independence movement and in the struggle to enthrone democracy.

           However, we are confronted today with a spill-over of bad governance and financial illiteracy in the public sector. The conflict between government and its workers often revolves around inability to pay salaries and fund institutions as evidenced in many states; and failure by the government to fulfil compensation and funding obligations that it signed under pressure. Resident doctors suspended their strike only after government released arrears of salaries and allowances it had earlier agreed to pay but didn’t; ASUU called a truce after money that was agreed to in 2009, 2013 and 2016 was released. There are similar agreements negotiated with other unions and professionals in the education and health sectors.

           There is no easy way out: today, it is obvious that the government simply lacks the resources to meet its obligations. One unofficial estimate of what it would need to fund, equip and pay teachers in its 40 universities is N1.4 trillion annually. Lesser, but no less impressive, sums are needed for the polytechnics and COEs. Pacts with non-academic staff, doctors, nurses and other health sector professionals require sums that are simply not there. The situation is compounded in the parity in pay and allowances claimed by workers in states and LGs, in spite of a federal system where public income, challenges, and opportunities are widely disparate. 

           Public finance and governance should be run on rationality. First, the federal and state governments should stop creating universities and tertiary health institutions they cannot fund. A government that could not meet its obligations to 28 universities 10 years ago has since created about 12 new ones. Kano, Ondo, Ekiti with poor internally generated revenues have three universities each when they never could adequately fund one.

           States should now devote efforts to properly funding and equipping their existing general and tertiary hospitals and build well structured primary health centres which are more affordable. It is time to downsize the public service and devise intelligent measures to stimulate agriculture, mining, industry, SMEs, innovation and services to create more jobs in the private sector. As governor of Lagos State, Fashola once lamented how he was required to implement 14 different pay structures. Public sector pay should be harmonised.

           The Federal Government will need to thoroughly examine all agreements and its obligations and call for honest, sincere renegotiations. It should consider rationalising the mushroom universities set up as political gimmicks by the last administration through mergers, with some becoming campuses of older universities; consider outsourcing and concessioning some health institutions and support the states in PHCs, general and specialist hospitals. Agreements by FG should not be binding on states and LGs. In a federation, states are not required to run the same pay and compensation structures. Lagos with N36 billion monthly internally generated revenue cannot be at par with Ekiti that barely rakes N300 million monthly.

For unions, strike should be a last resort. 

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