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Opinions of Sunday, 9 August 2015

Columnist: Asare-Donkoh, Frankie

Unbudgeted strikes, unbudgeted wages, and unbudgeted deaths

There is no doubt that we, as a nation, are at crossroads considering the number of strikes by different workers unions in recent times.

Going back to 2013, it was our parliamentarians who set the pace for embarking on strike to force government to pay them, not their salaries, but rather salary arrears and unpaid allowances.

On Thursday, January 3, 2013, Members of Parliament (MPs) boycotted the business of the House, in protest against the delay in the payment of their salary arrears and sitting allowances.

According to Adom News, some MPs said “their salary arrears for more than two years had not been paid and to make matters worse, their sitting allowances too had not been paid”.

The Prof. Awurama Addy Committee recommended that MPs’ salary of GH¢3,000 be increased to GH¢7,200 a month, backdated to January 2009. Even though the MPs had started receiving the new salary, they had no patience to wait any longer for the arrears and refused to work.

Members from both sides of the House unanimously agreed not to attend to the business of the House until their back pay was fully paid.

Speaking on the floor of the House, then Deputy Minister of Energy and MP for Tamale Central, Alhaji Innusah Fuseini, said governments in the past had delayed the payment of such arrears if they were not paid in the lifetime of the parliamentary session.

Then Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Finance, James Klutse Avedzi, confirmed in an interview with Adom News that government owed parliamentarians but however expressed concern about a loan agreement the house refused to work on due to their unpaid arrears.

From July 7 to August 4, this year, state attorneys were on strike to push their demands for improved working conditions including salary increment and a harmonisation of their salaries and benefits to that of circuit court judges as stated in the Legal Services Act 1993.

They also complained of lack of logistics which hinders their work, and added that various stakeholder discussions failed to yield any positive results, hence the decision to strike.

Until then some teachers who had been teaching for a length of time after their training had complained about the non-payment of their salaries, while some nurses particularly psychiatric nurses who had worked for almost a year without being paid their salaries were also complaining.

Psychiatric nurses at the Accra Psychiatric Hospital last Monday staged a one-day sit-down strike as their first warning towards the total withdrawal of their services if their salaries remained unpaid.

Then there were the 91 junior doctors who had worked for 11 months without any salaries, and had to leave their hospitals in different parts of the country and converged at the Controller and Accountant-General’s Department (CAGD). They resolved never to leave the premises until they were paid, and it was until after their action before a process was initiated to pay them.

A day after the 91 doctors occupied the CAGD, ex-soldiers also occupied Parliament House with their petition to the house to ensure that their outstanding retirement benefits were paid.

The University Teachers Association of Ghana (UTAG) on Thursday embarked on a strike action because their book and research allowances have not been paid. Since Monday, pharmacists have also started their strike because of disagreements with government over the implementation of the Single Spine Pay Policy.

But perhaps the most prominent of the strikes is the current one by doctors belonging to the Ghana Medical Association (GMA), who, according to their statements, are in the process of resigning en masse because, government failed to meet their demands for better conditions of service. The strike was declared on Thursday, July 30, as part of a process leading to their resignation.

The doctors’ strike and intended resignation seems to have received divided opinions. Mostly government and its communicators have condemned the action, while some individuals have blamed the government for the impasse pointing out that the issues involved had unnecessarily dragged for too long with government not making adequate effort to engage the doctors in a productive discussion.

What has annoyed most of the doctors is the leakage by government of the proposal the GMA put forward on the negotiating table. From a copy I have read, whatever was contained in the document was a proposal showing the doctors had prepared well for the negotiations, but strangely the government never went to the negotiating with any counter proposal.

Proposals can never be final positions and therefore the twist that government and its communicators had put on the document had fuelled more anger and mistrust among the doctors.

The document was first leaked by presidential staffer, Stan Dogbe, on his Facebook, but Minister of Employment, Harruna Iddrisu, says that government was not responsible for the leakage, forgetting that Dogbe is a presidential staffer and only had access to the proposal because of his position as government official.

Again, the government-instigated insults poured on members of the GMA by government officials including ministers of state, and members of the public who had been misled to believe that the doctors were actually demanding everything in their proposal, were uncalled for and had worsen the negotiations.

For instance a deputy Minister of Communications, Felix Ofosu Kwakye, had described the leadership of the GMA as “intellectually dishonest medical professionals”, while deputy Communications Director of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), Kwaku Boahen, said on radio that “I can bet my last penny on the fact that about 90 per cent of the leadership of the doctors are just pushing their political agenda ... hence the reasons why they are making these undue demands.”

Added to these is the statement by the NDC National Communications Director, Solomon Nkansah, describing the doctors as “nation wreckers” who were making demands based on their political leanings”.

All these are damaging statements and insults on the persons of the doctors. Provoked by such remarks the General Secretary of the GMA, Dr Frank Serebuor, responded to Boahen by retorting that, “for all you know, this idiot in your studio receives free fuel, free call credit and free accommodation. Which public sector doctor has free accommodation? We pay rent to the government.”

Interestingly, much as Dr Serebour’s outburst was unnecessary just as those by the government ministers and communicators were, some NDC officials are lashing out at Serebour without finding anything wrong with Ofosu Kwakye, Boahen, and Solomon Nkansah’s utterances and insults.

Even a labour consultant, Austin Gamey, and the National Labour Commission (NLC) have all taken sides in the dispute. Gamey has described the doctors’ strike as illegal and ‘uncivilised’.

The Executive Secretary of the NLC, Breku Boadu, says the action is illegal even though he admits that “there was an earlier arbitration and that the Commission indicated that the decisions that were made during the earlier compulsory arbitration should be implemented.” But his promise that “other administrative issues would be sorted out with the Ghana Health Service Council” indicates that the NLC’s decisions had not been complied with but he failed to condemn government for that.

On Wednesday President Mahama categorically declared that the demands by the GMA will adversely affect the Single Spine Pay Policy, and derail the gains made in achieving fiscal discipline, hence he will “not authorise any expenditure on wages and compensation not provided for in the budget”. This seems to have rather worsened the situation because according to the doctors what they are demanding are to be agreed and then embodied in the 2016 budget. This clearly shows the president was either ill-informed by his subordinates or completely left out in the dark, hence he should not have made that statement.

There is no end of service benefit (ESB) for workers no matter how long they have worked, but every four years MPs, ministers and others take ESB. If MPs can go on strike to claim their salary arrears, who else can’t do the same? By the way, how many ministers of states, deputy ministers, presidential staffers, and government communicators do we have, all being paid salaries and allowances?

Anyway now case closed by presidential fiat! With ‘unbudgeted strike’ and ‘unbudgeted wages’, we are already producing ‘unbudgeted deaths’ in our hospitals and only God knows when we will realise the real cost of this unnecessary battle and the harm to our country and our citizens.