Planned strike should be averted

Editorial

ANY strike by the members of the Health Support Workers Association will practically bring the public health system to its knees. It will put the lives of those in hospital wards and many more turning up daily at the health facilities for care and treatment at great risk.
The Government has the next two days to respond to claims for improved terms and conditions for members of the association. That hopefully is enough time for the Government, if not both parties, to take all necessary steps to avoid the strike and possible loss of life resulting from such action.
The planned strike has been deemed proper, meeting the country’s industrial relations, arbitration and dispute settlement provisions and would proceed. That is the word from the industrial registrar and the members of association through secret ballot by the electoral commission.
It is the desire of 1868 members of the Health Support Workers Association to take this drastic action to get the relevant government authorities to respond to their claims for benefits and generally improvements to their terms and conditions which they felt they had been denied for many years.
Only 11 association members from around the country have voted against the strike, according to the secret ballot conducted by the PNG Electoral Commission at the 14 provincial centres covered. It was a conclusive result even if members of the association in the remain six provinces – Western, Gulf, Northern, West New Britain, New Ireland and Southern Highlands – did not take part in the secret ballot.
The association has the Government or the Department of Personnel Management until Friday to respond to a log of claims presented to the Department of Personnel Management last year.
Earlier this month, when the association’s intention to stage the strike was published in the media  Department of Personnel Management Secretary John Kali responded saying that issues raised in the association’s log of claims have been addressed in a recent award to the public service which included the health support workers.
Kali says the health support workers were part of the public service and as such benefit from any benefit or award negotiated by the Public Employees Association and his department.
However, the Health Support Workers Association thinks differently. The dispute has dragged on and would now be settled through industrial action.
Sadly the impact of such industrial action would affect the sick and dying the most. Any strike action would shut down the pharmacies, the pay system for hospital staff and information and communication system.
Health Support Workers Association general secretary Jack Suao reiterated on Tuesday that the workers played a major role in health service delivery in the country but their terms and conditions have not improved.
Generally, on a daily basis the public comes into contact with clinical staff at hospitals and other health facilities such as community health workers, nurses, health extension officers and doctors.
But we seldom appreciate the fact there is a large army of non-clinical staff who facilitate and provide vital technical and operational support for the work of directly deal with patients to do their jobs well.
These may include the office receptionists, payroll officers, laboratory assistants, pharmacists, morgue attendants and others who remain behind the scenes in the provision of medical care.
Their critical role in the health system may not be understood until when they stop working. Perhaps then would we fully appreciate what they do.
The health workers have given the Government the next couple of days to respond to their log of claims.
It is a give and take; and the association executives and their employer, the Department of Personnel Management, know that well enough. , the department and the association would given enough room to negotiating and bargaining space to avert what is shaping up to be a disaster, if the three week strike is allowed to proceed.
It has been unfortunate that previous attempts, if there has been any, to arrive at an amicable solution to this dispute have not achieved a desirable outcome.
If possible the parties should get together for a last-ditch attempt to avert the strike. We hope that common sense would prevail in the end so everyone goes away satisfied and that the country’s public health system, weak as it is, does not suffer further.

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