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Govt deploys Dr. Jennifer Westford to meet with restive nurses

Dr. Jennifer Westford

Executive members of the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU), accompanied by government representative Dr. Jennifer Westford, on Monday continued to meet nurses at hospitals in a bid to resolve a bitter dispute over COVID-19 risk allowances and so stave off a strike from Wednesday, sources said.

Dr. Westford, a medical doctor by profession, reportedly met with nurses at the West Demerara  Regional Hospital at the weekend and the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC) on Monday, at the request of President Irfaan Ali. Prior to those meetings. Dr. Westford held bilateral talks last week with top officials of the union.

GPSU General Secretary, Kempton Alexander confirmed that a meeting was underway at GPHC Monday afternoon, but he declined to give details about whether it was with management, only saying “not exactly.” The union is likely to make known its latest position on Tuesday.

The Chief Executive Officer of the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC), Retired Brigadier George Lewis said Monday night that the GPSU did not respond to his request for a meeting to discuss their grievances. “We dispatched a correspondence to the GPSU outlining our position on the issues last Saturday and suggested a virtual meeting. We await their response,” he told News-Talk Radio Guyana 103.1 FM/ Demerara Waves Online News.

Attorney General Anil Nandlall also Monday night said GPSU President Patrick Yarde has not responded to his letter warning against industrial action because the steps had not been followed under the law before calling a strike in the health sector, an essential service. He also said several efforts to contact him by telephone have also proved futile. “It is clear that the union has an agenda that is peculiar and sinister,” he said.

It is unclear whether the vastly reduced turnout to yet another protest by GPHC nurses outside that healthcare institution had anything to do with Mr. Nandlall’s threat of criminal prosecution, dismissal of nurses or withdrawal of recognition of the GPSU as the bargaining agent issued to Mr. Yarde. Last week, the 90-minute morning protest had attracted at least 100 nurses but on Monday that number dwindled to 35.

“It is sad that those are the types of threats that we are getting. We are working so hard in this pandemic and if you look, our nurses are actually overworked and underpaid,”a nurse said, even as she insisted that the GPSU followed the procedures. The nurse, who is regarded as one of the organisers, believed that the reduced turnout was linked to the Attorney General’s threats. “I do believe so. It is because those threats were on Social Media, blasting everywhere… Remember, we are just normal healthcare workers fighting for our life and it is so unfair for us to be threatened like that. Of course, if threats are coming from the authorities, we don’t have any empathy or any solutions being put forward,” the nurse said from the picket line.

They Monday again held placards and chanted slogans as they stood on the New Market Street pavement. “Essential workers, essential pay,” “Work us like a donkey, pay us like a junkie,” “No money, no work,” “Overworked, underpaid,” “Nurses are priceless, yet penniless,” and “Overworked and threatened.”

The GPSU, maintaining that it has followed the law, has said the nurses would go on a “full-scale” strike after the ultimatum expires on Tuesday.

The nurses are demanding COVID-19 risk allowances for everyone rather than frontline workers, saying that they are all exposed to the potentially deadly virus that has killed 91 persons up to Monday, 5th October. They are also asking for increased salaries and adequate supplies of personal protective equipment. In particular, GPHC nurses say they have long outstanding issues of gratuities and pensions that must be resolved.

The Guyana government has allocated GYD$150 million to pay risk allowances to frontline COVID-19 workers.