The Federal Government of Nigeria has warned members of the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) to shelve their planned five-day warning strike, describing it as illegal. The Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, issued the warning on May 16, 2023, shortly after receiving a letter from the NARD executive notifying him of the impending industrial action, which was billed to commence at midnight.
Reacting to the letter, Ngige said he had contacted the Minister of Health, who informed him that a meeting had been scheduled by his office with the resident doctors on Wednesday, May 17. He advised the doctors to avail themselves of the opportunity for social dialogue with their employer, rather than embark on a warning strike, which is unknown to the law.
“I will advise them to attend the meeting with the Minister of Health tomorrow. I will also advise them very strongly not to go on a five-day warning strike. There is nothing like a warning strike. A strike is a strike,” Ngige said.
“If they want to take that risk, the options are there. It is their decision. They have the right to strike. You cannot deny them that right. But their employer has another right under Section 43 of the Trade Dispute Act, to withhold their pay for those five days.”
Ngige added, “So, if the NARD has strike funds to pay their members for those five days, no problem. The Health Minister will instruct the teaching hospitals to employ adhoc people for those five days and they will use the money of the people who went on strike to pay the adhoc doctors. That is the ILO principles at decent work, especially for those rendering essential services. Lives should be protected.”
In response to the five demands of the doctors, Ngige said the Federal Government lacks the power to compel the states to domesticate the Medical Residency Training Fund, since health is in the residual list, where both the federal and state governments have the power to legislate.
According to him, the job of the Federal Government is to make policy and where the states disagree, they are at liberty to make their policy. He added that the Federal Government cannot bully the states into domesticating the MRTF if they do not want to.
Regarding the issue of immediate payment of the MRTF to their members, Ngige said it was appropriated in the 2023 budget but has not been released, as the 2022 budget was still running, adding that those in 2022 have all been paid. He denied the claim by NARD that the Federal Government did not pay minimum wage consequential adjustment arrears to their members, saying that all workers in the Education and Health Sectors, and even the defence agencies benefited from the adjustment.
Ngige noted that the doctors cannot declare nationwide strike because some states were owing their members, pointing out that the Federal Government cannot also dabble into the issue, being a state matter.
“The federal government cannot intervene in a bill at the National Assembly to bond doctors for five years, as it is a private member’s bill. Any intervention by the executive on the matter impinges on the autonomy and independence of the legislative arm of government,” Ngige said.
Although the bill has passed through first and second reading, Ngige was sure it would be shot down at the public hearing, since the law prohibits forced labour.
He advised the doctors not to talk about a 200 percent pay rise, as it was not feasible. Ngige pointed out that besides all the government had done for doctors and other workers in the health sector, such as an upward review of hazard allowances, the Nigeria Medical Association was already negotiating with the Federal Ministry of Health, National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission and the Presidential Committee on Salaries on pay rise for doctors.