Patients stranded as Government docs strike over allowances, FTA | Sunday Observer

Patients stranded as Government docs strike over allowances, FTA

The powerful Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) trade union conducted a islandwide ‘token strike’ last Friday (3) making 10 key demands of the Government. The trade union action was couched in the doctors’ unions’ opposition to the Singapore Free Trade Agreement which they claim will affect the job market in Sri Lanka, but included nine other demands, many of them pertaining to their own allowances, taxation on their (private) earnings, promotions and privileges for their children.

As a result of the GMOA token strike, long queues were visible in all major government hospitals last Friday, while the no-show by the medical officers meant that non-emergency surgeries, medical clinics and Out Patient Departments did not function, stranding thousands of patients all over the country. The token strike did not affect the Accident Service Units, Maternity, Pediatric and Cancer Hospitals, Kidney Units and Military Hospitals.

GMOA branches issued strict instructions to its members not to engage in private practice on the day of the strike, after the scandal during the last doctors’ strike, when the GMOA President himself was available for private channeling through the Nawaloka Hospital during an islandwide strike by doctors in Government Hospitals.

GMOA President Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya speaking to the Sunday Observer said, the strike had been a success as even private sector doctors had supported the strike.

Contrary to this claim, the Sunday Observer using the DOC990 App, an online platform for making doctor appointments in major private hospitals found that private practitioners were available for consultations last Friday. Given this information, Dr Padeniya then admitted that only about 50% of private practioners had participated in the GMOA token strike last Friday.

This meant,, to obtain medical services on August 3, patients had to channel doctors privately. Footage appeared on electronic media of nurses telling patients that they should have followed the previous night’s news bulletins before arriving at the hospital for outpatient treatment and clinics.

Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne also issued a press release condemning the work stoppage of government doctors. Work stoppage of the GMOA was not fair action, says the Minister.

FTA and Tax Policy

The irony is that some demands are totally strange to the subject matters of the medical officers, such as, the Singapore- Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement. When questioned about the clause in the FTA which the GMOA claims to state as, ‘doors are opening for foreign medical officers’, Dr. Padeniya refused to point to any clause in the agreement but referred to the videos published on the GMOA website.

PAYE (Pay As You Earn) tax is also one of the major demands the GMOA has put forward for justifying their trade union action.

But, Treasury Secretary, Dr R.H.S. Samaratunge clarified in his comments to the Sunday Observer, that the Government altered its tax policy from time to time, but this was not targeted at any particular profession. “If a doctor earns less than Rs.125,000 per month he does not pay any tax. Doctors who earn Rs 125,000 to 175,000 have to pay 4% out of their extra income of Rs 50,000 which is equivalent to Rs. 2000.00,” Dr Samaratunge noted.

“Disturbance Availability and Transport (DAT) allowance for Doctors has been increasing through time. It was increased in 2015 too. We haven’t taken any decision to increase the DAT allowance of doctors yet” he said.

Dr. Rajitha Senaratne in his press release pointed out that only doctors who earn more than Rs. 350,000 per month were eligible to pay 24% tax on those earnings, and those who earn less than that can enjoy the same 12% tax rate as earlier.

Dr. Priyanga Dunusinghe, an economist at the University of Colombo told the Sunday Observer that once a Free Trade Agreement is signed there was a grace period for adjusting all elements of the agreement according to the practical situation in both countries. “There could be some problems in this FTA but every agreement gets a grace period so both countries can create a proper regulatory mechanism in needed areas” he commented.

The GMOA has a history of resisting government policy even when it serves the people at large. A few years ago, when the 1990 Suwaseriya free Ambulance service was launched, the GMOA offered stiff resistance, even threatening to reject patients who were brought to Government Hospitals in the 1990 ambulances. In spite of GMOA opposition, the service has proved widely successful as a first response to medical emergencies and is being rolled out all over the island.

Professionalism at stake?

The Sri Lanka Medical Association also weighed in on the doctors’ strike, saying it was the union’s right to launch trade union action. “But it should never ever be at the expense of patients” Dr. Ruvaiz Haniffa, President, Sri Lanka Medical Association said.

“We are a body that highlights the academic progress in the field of medicine. The GMOA is a trade union formed by doctors. They may have a right to go on strike but certainly not by holding patients to ransom,” Dr Haniffa explained.

Withholding treatment to serve trade union purposes could not be condoned, at any level, the SLMA President added. “Doctors in this country are produced because the state invests billions of rupees in their education. This is public money, so they have no ethical right to withhold treatment from members of the public due to union action,” he stressed. But SLMA also urges the Government to encourage the participation of professionals when inking international agreements such as the Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement.

Meanwhile in Japan

About a month ago, bus drivers in Okayama, Japan, went on strike. The drivers had been threatened with job security, but had not received a favourable response from their bus company. Their final trump card was resorting to strike action. But they did not inconvenience commuters.

There are no conductors in Japan, instead a machine collects the fare by cash or card. The day they struck work, the Okayama drivers covered the paying machine and hung boards on it, declaring rides free of charge all day. In essence, commuters had no problems with their everyday life and only the bus company faced difficulties by the strike.

The lack of income for the company was the greatest impact of the trade union action and cost them millions. The drivers aimed their action at bus owners, rather than innocent passengers.

In this context, Sri Lanka is far behind even in trade union activities. The common annexation of the general public as a third party in the middle of the conflict has become the ‘habit’ of many trade unions in Sri Lanka. A week ago, train drivers launched a lightning strike during the day, with no prior notice to commuters, stranding thousands of rail passengers across the country.

The tragedy of Sri Lanka’s highly politicised trade unions, is that the success of their strikes are measured on how much inconvenience is caused to the public. That this would result in public frustration, and finally translate into mass frustration against the authorities, is the calculation. Time and again, and once again last Friday, the doctors’ union has proven just that.

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Prof. Colvin Gunaratne points to GMOA ‘capture’ of SL Medical Council

Professor Colvin Gunaratne who resigned from his post as Chairman of Sri Lanka Medical Council on last Friday, issued a damning indictment on the Sri Lanka Medical Council virtually pointing to the capture of the professional governing body by the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA).

There were 25 members in the SLMC and out of them 16 members represented the Government Medical Officers’ Association, Prof. Gunaratne said.

Addressing a media conference, Professor Gunaratne said he was resigning because he had found it impossible to function independently.

Since assuming office as Chairman of the SLMC in October 2017, he had been trying without success to rectify errors in the Medical Council Service Minute in the last nine months, Prof. Gunaratne claimed. The Minute needed to change to adapt to needs of modern times, he added, explaining that according to the existing Minute, the voice of patients in matters coming up before the Sri Lanka Medical Council were not represented.

“The purpose of this act is the welfare of the general public of Sri Lanka. This main purpose of the act is not achieved because of the shortcomings of the act. And my resignation is not a sudden decision. I have been observing the conduct of SLMC for five years. Sri Lanka Medical Council receives grievances of patients and can act as a court of inquiry. But two thirds of members of the SLMC are doctors. They are the prosecutors, They are also the judges. They determine the sentence. Tell me if that is reasonable?” Prof. Gunaratne charged.

There were at least three complaints per month against doctors, but none of them have been found guilty by the SLMC in the last five and a half years, the outgoing chairman of the SLMC revealed.

“If someone asks me about a strike launched by medical officers I’d say it’s illegal and a breach of ethics,” he clarified his stance on the GMOA strike answering a question raised by a journalist during the press conference.

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GMOA President threatens journalists with ‘traitors’ list

President of the Government Medical Officers’ Association, Dr Anuruddha Padeniya, incensed by the fact that he was forced to admit that only about half of the private practitioners had participated in the token strike, retorted that the trade union was currently in the process of compiling a ‘traitors’ list of journalists working against the interests of the motherland.

“We have created a point scheme. In Psychiatry, there is a method to identify people who betray the country. We are going to launch this list and keep it online with the materials you publish. So we can display that you are carrying out a contract,” he threatened a reporter over the telephone last Friday. The journalist reported that the article had not even been published yet, but Dr Padeniya responded that there was ‘no point’, because journalists at the Sunday Observer were supportive of selling the country. “You should be ashamed of doing such a job. If I were you, I would stay home and cultivate rather than work for a paper like yours,” the GMOA president charged during the conversation.

“I know you must be recording this. That is good. Let others in your newspaper also listen to this,” Dr Padeniya added.

Reporter’s Note:Sunday Observer reached out to Dr Padeniya because this newspaper believes in obtaining a cross-section of voices about any social issue it covers. His views and the GMOA demands are reflected in the article on this page, and we reject his disparaging comments about our reporting and our profession. While we respect the GMOA’s right to strike work to secure their rights as a trade union, as journalists at a national newspaper, we have a bounden duty to represent the public, their views and difficulties in any story we cover. In this article, and all others, this is all we seek to do and we will not be deterred in this endeavour by threats from the GMOA or any other trade union. The decision of who is traitor, and who is patriot, is one we will leave to our readers.

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Nipponese and strikes

Japan is a nation that even conquered the concept of striking. But their history is as dirty as ours. In 1974, Japan faced 9,581 strikes, and the total number of workers involved was more than 3.2 million. However, the number of strikes currently being staged in Japan is limited to 50 or 60. Many Japanese teenagers have not even heard of a strike. The Japanese have gradually developed such a change. Since the end of the Second World War, efficiency has become the first priority in the country which leads them to be the second best economy in the world. Striking is a force that pushes the country backward, Japanese clearly identified from the 1970s. 

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