By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
LABOUR Minister Dion Foulkes has referred the Bahamas Doctors Union’s dispute over outstanding holiday pay to the Industrial Tribunal, noting their strike action has “threatened the public interest”.
According to Section 76 of the Industrial Relations Act, once this happens it is the “duty of any person participating in the strike or lock-out to discontinue the same forthwith” until the panel makes a ruling.
Mr Foulkes made the announcement in a brief press statement yesterday, adding all parties to the dispute had been notified in writing.
His decision to refer the matter to the tribunal temporarily halts BDU’s strike, which has continued since last Wednesday and comes amid public outrage in some quarters over the union’s demands for returning to work. However a source within the BDU has disputed whether the Industrial Tribunal can resolve matters like this. The union is holding a press conference today.
On Monday, The Tribune reported the junior doctors demanded the government to agree to one of the following requests: increase the current health insurance benefits of junior doctors to be on par with police officers/immigration officers; construct a paid parking lot on the hospital grounds for public use, of which the profits would be shared equally between the government and BDU; give doctors duty-free exemptions on one vehicle import every three years; grant exemption from real property tax or provide Crown land for the construction of the BDU office.
Regarding these requests, Health Minister Dr Duane Sands insisted yesterday that while no proposal should be summarily dismissed, the government was not prepared to set a precedent that would create an untenable and unsustainable demand on the public purse.
The minister said despite best efforts by the government and ultimately Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis to pay doctors in two instalments of overtime pay this calendar year, it has not been enough.
“I don’t believe that any request ought to be summarily dismissed. However, as a precondition for returning to work I think is a bit much,” Dr Sands told The Tribune of BDU’s proposition.
“So, the government of the Bahamas, the Public Hospitals Authority and the Ministry of Health and no less than the prime minster of the Bahamas has given an undertaking and the doctors will be paid just under $4m this year.
“That works out to $11,500 each for having worked public holidays since 2014 up to 2018. I believe that is a good faith gesture.
“To now require that the government accede to any of these other requests as a precondition for returning to work is a bit much.”
Dr Sands said the agreement for the payment of outstanding holiday pay was signed in 2014, with the PHA initially agreeing to pay in tranches over five semiannual periods.
However, BDU wished to be paid over four, he said.
“When they went to the prime minister, he made it an even more attractive settlement and said that we would pay it over two instalments the second instalment the end of this calendar year.”
He continued: “That’s still not good enough. The government of the Bahamas and all its agencies wish for this matter to be resolved and for the doctors to get back to work.
“As such given the reality of the fiscal position of the government and given the fact that doctors are not the only workers in the country, we are not prepared to set a precedent that is going to create an untenable (and) unsustainable demand on the public purse. So we have to be very, very cautious and we have to be honest with the workers.
“They can demand whatever they want. At the same time the government has to be honest, open, transparent and fair in acceding to the request. You could tell me you want $40m (but) if we don’t have it, we don’t have it.”
Other issues the doctors have asked to be addressed includes the abolition of one and two-year employment contracts; the reinstatement of intern housing allowance and on-premises hospital housing and the removal of the stipulation that doctors ‘swipe in’ prior to receiving holiday pay. Of this latter request, the union has asked that the existing reimbursement method be used, which is the holiday claim form.
The union is also asking to be the sole bargaining agent for public dentists; that the parity in salaries between Department of Public Health physicians and Public Hospitals Authority physicians be rectified and that doctors who have not received a pay package or allowances during BDU’s last industrial agreement be regularised and receive back pay.
In a document sent to the government, BDU also said it accepts the proposed pay out of approximately $5 million covering the period of June 2014 to October 2018, which is to be paid to junior doctors in two instalments.
The first instalment at the end of August and the second in December.