The log in the government’s eye

On February 7 this newspaper published an editorial addressing remarks made by Labour Minister Dr N K Gopaul in another section of the media regarding what he said was the “brazen disrespect” for the country’s labour laws that obtains at some private sector workplaces and the government’s preparedness to invoke the laws of the land to ensure that those rights are respected.

Dr Gopaul’s remarks dealt with, among other things, the physical conditions of work which some private sector employees had to endure. Our editorial duly pointed out that even as he was sounding off about safety and health transgressions in private sector workplaces he might wish to remind himself that the government itself was an equally blatant transgressor since there were numerous cases in which some of its own workplaces posed risks – in some cases serious ones – to the safety and health of its employees.

State schools, perhaps above any other government-run workplaces, attest to government’s poor safety and health record. In fact, increasingly, teachers, parents and children   are protesting what are often downright unsafe and health-threatening conditions in schools that have persisted for years and demanding that the government do better. There are cases too of government offices where running water is not always available, resulting in the sanitary blocks becoming serious health hazards.

Of course, it is the Ministry of Labour that is responsible for setting and enforcing national safety and health standards, and it seems that the state’s safety and health inspectors never get around to taking a look in their own backyard, so to speak. Its current preoccupation with the mote in the private sector’s eye blinds the government to the log in its own.

Things would appear to have gotten so bad at the facility used to provide training for nurses employed in the state sector that in January the President of the Guyana Nurses Association (GNA) took the highly unusual step of urging that the Minister of Health intervene to address conditions of classroom overcrowding and sub-standard accommodation. One of the recommendations which the GNA President made was that the Ministry of Health stop the admission of more trainees to the institution, presumably until the existing problems are remedied.

It appears that Health Minister Dr Bherri Ramsarran took umbrage at the GNA President’s observations and reportedly responded by asserting that the GNA is not the body responsible for admitting trainees to the institution.  That, of course, may well be true though, if the Minister did indeed express that sentiment, it was not only intemperate and irrelevant but downright ridiculous.

The President of the GNA and, subsequently, the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) went beyond commenting on the safety and health hazards that obtain at the institution, alluding as well to the implications of those and other conditions for the quality of training which the nurses receive. That, surely, ought to be a matter of concern to the Minister of Health and one would have thought that he would treat with the GNA President’s observations as those of a concerned nursing professional, particularly given the nexus between the quality of training delivered to nurses and raising the standard of medical care in an already much-maligned health care sector.

Nothing apparently having been done to remedy the conditions to which the GNA President alluded in January, the GPSU now says that it has done its own investigations, found her observations to be valid and has told the Health Ministry that if it does not move to remedy the conditions in a month it will withdraw its tutors from the programme.

The incident, frankly, borders on the absurd. Here is a case of an important state-run training institution which, from all accounts, is seriously lacking in acceptable health and safety standards and a Health Minister responding, apparently, with a decidedly indelicate intervention in circumstances where the situation requires an urgent remedial response.

Much has already been said and written about the conditions in state-run schools across the country, though it seems that in the majority of cases the teachers are resolved to grin and bear it. Even if we accept that all of the safety and health deficiencies in all of the state-run places of work cannot be remedied overnight, the fact of those discrepancies lends a hollow and hypocritical ring to the government’s self-righteous soundings on the matter of safety and health standards in private sector workplaces.

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