By Gabriel Ogunjobi, Foundation for Investigative Journalism
Medical interns at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital (UCTH) in Cross River State have been suspended since August 2 for asking the hospital to settle its 10-month salary indebtedness to them, FIJ can report.
According to a circular signed by Ededet Eyoma, UCTH’s Director of Administration, the management insisted that the young medical practitioners were posing security challenges to the hospital, thereby necessitating their suspension from work.
The interns, though, say UCTH’s decision is an attempt to rob them of their entitlement, which has accumulated to approximately N489 million for 350 interns across nine departments.
The Inauspicious Start
FIJ learnt that when the first batch of 2020 medical interns from Pharmacy, Medical Laboratory Science, Nursing and Physiotherapy among others were to be inaugurated into the hospital, they were asked to pay N30,000 as a ‘documentation fee’ in late October.
“We didn’t feel it was right but we obliged out of desperation to get a job,” Kingsley Daniel (not real name), one of the medical interns, told FIJ.
“It was really an issue that we drew the attention of the Chief Medical Director to, during our orientation. He promised that we had been scheduled for payment from the end of November, so we would not need to make such payment anymore.”
Against the assurance of payment, none of these interns was paid at the end of November.
By the end of February, a small number of the pharmacy interns were paid N64,000 each while interns from other departments were left unpaid.
Protests That Generated Funds
After much frustration, the interns went on their first protest in March.
“We invited the media to cover the peaceful protest,” Adeolu Kolade (not real name), another intern, told FIJ. “It was not even violent or long, but the management said we were embarrassing them.”
Instead of the sum of N140,000 that was due to each of the interns, UCTH paid them N16,500. Again in May, they were paid N17,000.
After another round of protest, the interns were paid the highest ever in June which was N64,000. UCTH also paid N34,000 in July.
DSS Probe Interns’ Whatsapp Chats
Different interns told FIJ that the hospital management were not happy with the pressure they were putting on them with the series of protests.
“We didn’t know we had a snitch among us when one of us made a careless joke about the CMD,” Kolade said. “He just loosely said if we could kidnap the CMD, we would probably make N500 million to pay off. The commenter and four others were later invited by the Department of State Services (DSS) over that mere joke.
“The hospital also saw us as a threat and suspended all of us. As the internship is coming to an end soon, we don’t even know if we would be allowed to return or if they would even pay our arrears.”
FIJ gathered that the five interns were invited for a meeting by DSS on July 29 in Calabar, the capital city.
After conducting a forensic analysis on the phones of the five interns, among other investigations, the state agency released them and warned them against making such statements in the future.
UCTH: The Funds Are Just Not Enough
When FIJ contacted Icha Bassey, the Chairman of the Joint Health Sector Union (JOHESU) in UCTH, he cited insufficient funding as the reason for salary irregularities with the interns.
“The challenge is about funds and that is general for other teaching hospitals too,” he said.
“The only reason ours is this bad is the large number of interns at UCTH unlike other places around. From N100 million the Federal Government was paying for non-regular workers, which includes these interns, we have been receiving N6.5 million since January.”
With the industrial action embarked upon by the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) since August 2, the activities of medical interns across various teaching hospitals have become more significant in public health facilities.
Asked whether these suspended UCTH interns were dispensable, Bassey admitted that the absence is being felt but “the decision just had to be made in the hope that the management would find a way to pay them on their return”.
“We believe the threats they were making on their group page were because of the outstanding salaries,” he said. “Once UCTH is able to pay part or in full, I don’t think there will be such tension anywhere again.”
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