Was the confrontation over opening hours of health centres necessary?

By TP Saran

Judging from the controversial posturings that have been aired about the earlier opening hours of health centres for the collection of blood, it is clear that there are arguments for and against on both sides. It is true that the politicians must be attentive to the demands of the public, but a mature politician should realise that they must be examined properly in all their aspects and implications before any final decision is taken.

In this case, this does not seem to have taken place, otherwise this situation should not have been reached. Was the minister too much in a hurry to please the electorate? And thus imposed a decision instead of giving enough time to the concerned officers to work out the details of implementation and in consultation with all parties concerned?

It is too easy for union leaders – we know how brilliant and hardworking they are! – to say that the minister was ill-advised. What kind of advice did they give when they themselves had the opportunity? One version maintains that at the meeting with the stakeholders she did not want to listen to the views of the Nursing Association because her mind was already made up.

On the other hand, as someone who has been a civil servant up to the level of permanent secretary, the minister knows better than most the rules about respecting terms and conditions of service. Changing them requires dialogue and consultations in an open and calm manner and adopting a ‘top-down’ approach is not likely to result in an adequate and acceptable solution. Many loose ends will still remain.

And that is exactly the situation. There is discontent about starting an hour early because it genuinely disrupts the family routine of many nurses, especially those who are mothers with school-going children. Unlike the minister who has a chauffeur-driven car, they have to see them off in the pick-up van at a set time, and if a ministry which boasts to be responsible for the ‘Quality of Life’ of its citizens does not understand that, then who will? There are other points advanced by the nurses, not all of them justified, but still they needed to be discussed thoroughly.

Further, even if the idea of time-off compensation in lieu of monetary allowance was suggested, surely it must first be formally tabled as an option before finalization? After all, it is the minister who personally chaired the meetings with the associations, and therefore the entire responsibility for doing so surely rests on her, isn’t it?

The minister’s miscalculation has not only opened a flank for union leaders to hit at and try to gain some ill-deserved fame, but has also showed her in a weak light. If on top of that she goes on an internal rampage, then she will have only herself to blame for the consequences. Forewarned is forearmed.

Overtime: Legitimate and Illegitimate

What a contradiction indeed! People who are earning nearly half a million rupees per month made up of pay, special allowance and huge fees from being members of several boards are telling the tidimoune to tighten their belts because the economic situation is not bright! It is public knowledge that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening dangerously in Mauritius, and to ask those at the lower end of the social scale to make even more sacrifices when the prices of food and other essentials keep going up is nothing short of absurd.

People deserve to be paid for work done, and if the conditions of work include duties that need to be done outside normal working hours as a routine, and form part of the terms and conditions of service, then surely the expectation of an overtime allowance is justified? This is the case all over the world in democratic societies, and here too there are rules and regulations governing this aspect of terms of service, and they must be respected.

In some ministries, the responsible higher officers are refusing to approve payments for overtime by certain lower categories, such as drivers, which have been approved regularly before, and the claims for which can be verified. On the other hand, some officers are deliberately kept after hours to carry files from here to there simply to inflate their working hours and get overtime payment, which is granted without difficulty at all.

We are all for reducing waste and improving efficiency, but the example must start from the top, and this must not be done at the expense of those who are struggling to make ends meet. Nobody is saying that galloping overtime should be allowed. However, legitimate overtime must be paid, and fake overtime ruthlessly chased and eliminated. There are tough times ahead – and they must not be made tougher for weaker categories of workers.

* Published in print edition on 22 October 2010

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