KUALA LUMPUR, March 2 – Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii has expressed his support for industrial action in the public health service, as long as strikes do not jeopardise patient care.
The government backbencher said every worker, not just doctors or health care workers, has the right to industrial action that should be the “last option”.
“But they have their right to demand and policymakers have no right to stop them from demanding,” Dr Yii told CodeBlue in an exclusive interview Tuesday.
When asked if the government, as the employer, should refrain from taking action against health care workers who exercise their right to industrial action, Dr Yii said: “The right to strike has to be reasonable”.
“There are certain fundamentals that have to be agreed upon, and I think doctors themselves will understand that…no single doctor will want to jeopardise patient care. So if the strike or industrial action is being organised without jeopardising it, I don’t see an issue.
“As I said, for me, I believe in their rights to demand; let me rephrase that, doctors themselves know what is right and I trust their instincts.”
When CodeBlue pointed out that it almost sounded like Dr Yii was guilt-tripping doctors into not organising a strike, the DAP lawmaker said: “That’s not my intention. As I said, I don’t want to disempower them, I support their act of doing it. But I trust, I know that doctors will know what’s best.”
CodeBlue cited an op-ed written by a medical doctor, who had pointed out that patient wellbeing and care “are already compromised”, with patients dying in the emergency department while awaiting ward admission, broken and insufficient equipment in health care facilities, and patients dying en route to receiving medical care in facilities that are a half-day drive away.
“If industrial action can lead to a better work environment and conditions for everybody, and improve patient care as a result, industrial action may have more benefits than costs. Wouldn’t you agree?” CodeBlue asked Dr Yii.
“Of course. Anything that leads to a positive outcome, I’m more than supportive of it. At the end of the day, what we want is to improve the public health care system, not just the public health care system, the whole health care system and ecosystem in our country,” he replied.
Dr Yii also said he supported “reasonable” working hours for health care workers.
“I don’t think they should be treated like modern-day slaves. The risks and workload that they face is high, it’s tough; I fully understand that.”
While Dr Yii said “some proper regulations” for government doctors’ working hours need to come into place, he stressed that this required a more in-depth study.
A medical officer, who participated in CodeBlue’s January survey among government health care workers on sentiments about their working environment, said doctors in the health service work for more than 36 hours without sleep, forcing them to even microsleep while driving back home.
When CodeBlue asked Dr Yii if a study was really necessary to state that employers shouldn’t be working their staff for 36 hours straight, he said the health care workforce was “a bit different” from other professions.
“I’m not saying they don’t deserve more rights than the rest, but I think we need to understand the ecosystem and come up with what is fair. And this ‘fair’ has to be a proper stakeholder engagement with all involved. It’s not just a top-down decision, ‘I decide what’s fair for you’.
“But I think we need to come in and do a middle ground on what I think is fair when it comes to working hours. I support reasonable rights for health care workers.”
According to Shariffullah Majeed, a partner (employment and industrial relations) at law firm Lee Hishammuddin Allen & Gledhill, workers in essential services, including public health services, have the right to industrial action under the Industrial Relations Act (IRA) 1967.
Section 43 of the IRA requires workers in essential services to give their employer notice of the intended strike within 42 days before the event. However, it also allows strikes to be held after 21 days of giving such notice.
Dr Larry Nyanti, a physician and lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, listed six steps that doctors in the public health service should take before launching a walkout, including getting the support of consultants and senior administrative doctors to help cover for them during a strike.