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President and labour ministry ready to mediate health workers’ crisis (Updated)

hospital strikes
Photo by Christos Theodorides

The labour ministry is ready for mediation proceedings if needed, minister Yiannis Panayiotou said on Thursday, while President Nikos Christodoulides is also ready to step into the fray, following Cyprus-wide hospitals strike a day ago.

The latest developments come in the wake of a nationwide strike by public hospital employees, during which surgeries were cancelled for the eight-hour duration, and skeleton staff was left in place to handle caseloads, with some elderly patients turned away.

Public statements by unions reached a fever pitch in recent days, saying measures could escalate if state health services organisation Okypy did not “positively respond” and some even wondering whether the health services should simply revert to being fully state-run.

Speaking on state broadcaster CyBC’s morning radio, the labour minister offered assurances that this was not an option and said, “everyone wants to see a prompt resolution.”

However, he took issue with the employers and industrialists’ federation (Oev’s) statements to the effect that the labour ministry had been remiss in imposing set mediation procedures for essential workers taking time off for industrial action.

Oev on Wednesday condemned the strike, saying every possible means for a peaceful resolution should have been exhausted, as this concerns essential services with people’s lives on the line.

“The prescribed procedures [cited by Oev] can only happen should one of the two parties in the dispute—in this case the unions or Okypy—request them, and after a stalemate has been declared,” the minister said. He noted that Oev was essentially asking for the labour ministry to stop workers from striking which was not within its remit.

The minister said that the involvement of Health Minister Popi Kanari to finding “prospects for progress” on the matter is a positive.

“If asked to participate in a mediation committee the labour ministry is ready,” Panayiotou said, adding that he did not think it would come to that.

Health Minister Popi Kanari, also come under fire on Wednesday for not taking a more active role in alleviating the dispute. The finance and health ministers, although informed of discussions taking place, did not officially intervene.

Meanwhile, if required, the president is ready to intercede, according to daily Phileleftheros. He is expected to take a stern stance, according to the news source, since the labour issues at stake are covered by legislation unanimously voted in by all parties in 2017.

The audit service entered the fore too, saying that suggestions that Okypy was reducing its operational costs were wrong. “The number of patients is constantly being reduced and operational costs are increasing. Dozens of doctors have annual earnings exceeding €150,000.”

Meanwhile, the audit service is preparing two reports on the public health sector, one on Okypy set to be published in January and another on the Nicosia general hospital due to be ready at the end of November.

The crux of the disagreement concerns around 1,200 out of a total of around 7,500 health service employees, and centres on the fact that the state health services organisation (Okypy), in its trajectory to become self-sustaining, has placed new hires on personal contracts with a different pay scale agreement than that of older employees classed as public servants.

Healthcare workers’ unions expressed the position that this is an unfair practice amounting to different renumeration for equal work, and that the professional insecurity it brings will result in a transient workforce in the public health sector.

Meanwhile, Okypy spokesman Pambos Charilaou stated categorically that the unions’ demands were not legally practicable, which was echoed by the head of the health insurance organisation (HIO) Thomas Antoniou on CyBC.

“The state health organisation must reach a place where it can be competitive,” Antoniou said and any immediate discussions of employee pay scales must by default happen within the current framework—unless a legal review is to be undertaken in time, he added.

Head of the nursing branch of public servants’ union Pasydy, Prodromos Argyrides, speaking on the same program, called out the Okypy director, saying he had “insulted six unions” by claiming that the strikers had “not even read the organisations’ most recent proposal,” discussed during a failed eleventh-hour meeting to avert the strike.

“Moreover, we are being told that our strike action ‘benefits private hospitals’,” Argyrides said, which he took as statement typical of the lack of seriousness with which Okypy views its employees’ demands.

Various social stakeholders have previously cited financial feasibility and the drive to improve public hospital competitiveness, efficiency and performance-based pay, as factors in Okypy’s handling of remuneration.

Charilaou on Wednesday assured that new hires’ pay scales, while not covered with a collective agreement, were nonetheless safeguarded by law.

Spokesman for the nursing union Pasyno, Theodoros Petelis, however, argued a collective agreement was necessary for job security and called on Okypy to explain why pay raises had not been implemented for three years.

He said Okypy’s model had “failed” and it was incumbent upon the government to take up its responsibilities towards the public healthcare sector and, if necessary, take it over.

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