Drag As Strike Threatened
By Alyssa Giachino, The Herald Mexico
October 14, 2005
The health care workers' union is ready to strike on
Sunday potentially creating a crisis situation in hospitals across the
nation if a deal on retirement rules isn't reached soon. The Social
Security Medical Institute (IMSS) and the union representing 400,000
health care workers have been engaged in negotiations for more than a year
over legislation that would curb health workers' retirement benefits. When
talks broke down earlier this month, IMSS Director Santiago Levy resigned.
President Vicente Fox immediately named Fernando Flores to replace him.
Although negotiations have resumed, there has been no sign of progress. If
an agreement isn't reached, the strike is scheduled to begin when the
clock strikes 12 on Saturday.
If a strike occurs, 4,000 hospitals and clinics could be affected
nationwide. On a daily basis, IMSS sees an average of 388,000 patients,
and performs 3,000 surgeries and 1,400 births. After a brief meeting
Thursday between union and IMSS representatives, union leaders returned to
a closed-door session with 900 member delegates to discuss their options.
The session continued until late into the night. Strikes have been
threatened since last year. In July of 2004, the Chamber of Deputies
approved a package to scale back the workers' retirement benefits. While
the measure was approved in the Senate and then signed by Fox, in August
the health care workers' union challenged the reforms in court. A verdict
has not yet been reached.
IMSS has argued that the pension and wage burden stipulated by the union
contract is unsustainable. "This is a problem that has been dragging
on for years, and as time passes it keeps getting worse," said
Oliverio Duque, coordinator of public information at IMSS, regarding
workers' retirement package. He said the reforms being discussed include
extending the retirement age and increasing the number of years future
employees must work in order to retire. Under current rules, women can
retire after 27 years of service and men after 28, regardless of age.
Francisco Gasca, now retired, worked as an auditor at IMSS for 33 years.
He doubts that the only financial liability for the institute is its
obligations toward workers. "The truth is that high-level managers
earn wages beyond the stratosphere," he said. "The workers'
pensions would not be such a problem if they didn't spend so much at the
top." According to Duque, management wages are adjusted to meet
federal guidelines. While worker benefits have deteriorated throughout
Mexico in recent years, Raúl Trejo Delarbre, a sociologist at the
National Autonomous University (UNAM), said that government affiliated
employees, such as those at IMSS and the state-run oil and electricity
companies, still enjoy generous benefits. However, Trejo also said that
the overall budget for healthcare delivery at IMSS "is inadequate.
There are a lot of deficiencies in patient care." Part of the problem
is that the country hasn't decided on a health care model. "In Canada
and Europe, they pay a very high premium, and the (government sponsored)
health care is high quality. In Mexico we pay lower premiums, and the
result is that the quality of care is also lower," he said. "As
a society, we haven't been willing to commit the resources needed for
superior care." In order to meet budget guidelines, IMSS has had a
freeze on hiring since last year, according to information obtained by EL
UNIVERSAL. Seventeen-thousand positions have not been filled, which the
union argues, negatively impacts patient care.
IMSS management has denied implementing a hiring freeze. Adriana Díaz
Moreno, who has worked as a radiology technician for 22 years at IMSS,
complains about under-staffing and an increase in the use of temporary
workers. Díaz said that the institute wants to take away benefits won by
the union through years of struggle. But she also says that the union
hasn't been very effective in communicating with the work force about the
current negotiations. The prospect of a strike makes her nervous.
"I'm a single mother, I can't afford to go without a paycheck for
more than two weeks," she said. "Very few workers have the money
saved up to withstand a strike." IMSS is financed 25 percent by
federal funds, with the remainder of the budget coming from employer
contributions. The Mexican constitution requires that all businesses pay
into the fund to provide health coverage for their employees.