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Nehawu threatens strike over lack of protection for health workers

Nehawu threatens strike over lack of protection for health workers
Zola Saphetha, general secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, at Tuesday’s media briefing. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union has called for health workers to stay away from work on 28 August to protest against the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) provided to frontline workers and daily victimisation experienced at work.

Frustrated and disgruntled, National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) has put plans in motion to prepare its national programme of action to protect frontline health workers. The plan is “aimed at defending its members and workers against unsafe working conditions and reckless infections”.

“As a union, we have come to the conclusion that can no longer fold our arms watching our members being subjected to harm and death,” Nehawu’s general secretary, Zola Saphetha, said at a media briefing on Tuesday 28 July. “Our members are being caught in a rock and hard place because when they comply they die. When they complain they are dismissed.”

The union has appealed to all its members to stay away from work on 28 August to persuade the government to listen to its list of demands. If the demands are not met by the government, Nehawu will then embark on a strike in September.

Nehawu wants the government to:

  • Check that health facilities are complying with the Occupational Health and Safety Act;
  • Look into the availability of PPE for staff working at health facilities;
  • Check the establishment of functional workplace health and safety committees;
  • Investigate the impact of the shortage of staff in hospitals; and
  • Look at the training of workers and frontline workers in dealing with Covid-19.

The demands came after the union undertook fact-finding visits to selected public healthcare facilities.

The purpose of the visits was to assess the conditions under which healthcare workers were working, including the availability of PPE, compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the state of the institutions in terms of the government’s National Core Standards.

Nehawu said that at all healthcare institutions that were visited there was non-compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act and a shortage of PPE.

This added to the union’s frustration as at the beginning of April it approached the courts to force the government to adhere with the Occupational Health and Safety Act by providing a comprehensive and budgeted plan detailing how those who continue to work during the lockdown would be protected.

Nehawu dropped the court case as it was assured by the Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize, the Minister of Employment and Labour, Thembelani Thulas Nxesi, and the Minister of Trade and Industry, Ebrahim Patel, that an adequate amount of PPE would be provided to frontline workers.

“We have passed the stage of begging and asking the government to listen to us,” Saphetha said. “We are not chasing ministers any more. We plan to save lives.”

In its report, Nehawu said some institutions have cleaning staff – who work in contaminated areas – left unprotected because of the misconception that PPE is only for clinical staff.

“In fact, in an institution like Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, our team found that workers had to resort to using refuse bags to protect themselves,” Saphetha said.

He said workers are being victimised on a daily basis at health institutions they visited. Members complained to the union that nothing had been done by management to create a “cordial working environment”.

In one instance, Nehawu said, a member at a health facility tested positive for Covid-19, but managers of the facility refused to disinfect the affected institution or section.

The union said that the General Justice Gizenga Mpanza Hospital management had suspended two workers who asked for a report on the rising infections at the facility.

The union said it was disheartened to find that managers at the Tygerberg Hospital, in Cape Town, had issued final written warnings to workers who refused to work without PPE.

“Such behaviour endangers the rest of the workforce as well as other patients,” Saphetha said.

Adding to the union’s frustration is what it called the inaccuracy of the Department of Health’s statistics on how many health workers have been infected with Covid-19.

The department recently stated that 13,174 healthcare workers were infected with Covid-19, News24 reports. However, Nehawu said the Department of Public Service and Administration reported that there are 22,329 public servants “who are currently infected, which is contradictory from the number from the [health] department”.

“Already, of that 13,174 infected workers, more than 10,275 of those workers are our members, which account for 78% of the reported numbers,” Saphetha said. “This makes me further doubt the veracity of the statistics communicated by government.”

Nehawu added it will not “sit idly while members are infected on a daily basis.”

“If the frontline workers are not protected, we are not going to protect the country,” Saphetha said. DM

Daily Maverick contacted the Department of Health for comment, but they could not respond in time for publication.

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