Maverick Citizen

GAUTENG HOSPITAL STANDOFF

Joburg health workers strike, health department counters with an interim interdict

Joburg health workers strike, health department counters with an interim interdict
Public service union members protest outside Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

‘During Covid we were called heroes — is this how you treat heroes?’ Health workers at the embattled Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital are demanding a 10% wage increase as part of a national public sector strike.

A standoff between civil servants and the government has reached boiling point, with workers taking to the street to demand a 10% wage increase. 

This follows Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi saying he was unilaterally implementing a 3% wage increase that would remain in place until 2026, when negotiations would next take place. 

Nxesi announced the 3% wage increase while discussions were still continuing at the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council. Union leaders fear a precedent of disregard for negotiations, and unilateral decision-making, is being set.

Tyres were burning on either side of Chris Hani Road in Soweto, Johannesburg, on Tuesday morning. Workers clad mostly in red union colours were gathered outside, chanting and singing Struggle songs. Some were ensuring that no vehicles, including ambulances, entered the premises. Inside, patients waited in queues, unattended.

Big turnout

Of all the hospitals disrupted in the strike, Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital had the biggest turnout. Union leaders say that’s due to anger and frustration by employees over earning roughly the same for years, while the cost of living skyrockets. Employees also cited issues such as being understaffed, dire working conditions due to lack of functioning equipment, medication and even food.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Doctors bring lunch for hungry patients as Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital reaches ‘crisis point’ ”

Deputy regional chairperson of the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers, Mziyanda Ndevu, said: “The picket started two weeks back when all the staff, nurses, porters, your admin clerk, all the employees came together, because they feel like they are being insulted by this government with the 3%.

“What angers the employees the most is that time when the employer reneged in 2020 on a resolution made in 2019… that’s made the workers come out in numbers. We are going to shut down Pretoria if the government doesn’t respond to our demand of a 10% wage increase.

“We will shut down the whole country.”

‘Loyalty betrayed’

Trade union federations Cosatu, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), and the Federation of Trade Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) refused to accept the government’s offer of a 3% wage increase, a R1,000 cash allowance that will lapse in March 2023, and a 1.5% pay progression for qualifying employees.

“This government is betraying the loyalty workers showed even during the Covid crises… instead of showing appreciation, they are shown a huge middle finger. Even ministers got their 3% back pay, and they earn millions…

“These workers don’t even have houses… look at the price of bread and oil — most workers are in debt. Our children get rejected for NSFAS because we are supposedly earning well, but most people can’t afford to put their children through tertiary education,” said Ndevu.

In December 2020, the Labour Appeal Court ruled that the government didn’t have to pay inflation-beating salary increases to about 1.3 million public servants because it could no longer afford to do so.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

In 2018, the government and trade unions signed a salary increase agreement that was meant to last for three years. The government complied with the agreement for two years, but reneged in year three because it wanted to cut state expenditure and debt.

Expenditure on wages has been a contentious issue as it takes about 34% of national spending, but workers feel they have been patient enough and should be remunerated with an above-inflation increase.

Meanwhile, civil servants are overly indebted; a 2007 study found that according to data provided by Persal, the total debt owed to microlenders by public servants amounted to R13.3-million during the 2006/2007 financial year. Of this amount, R3.3-million (25%) is attributed to employees in national departments. The balance (75%) is attributed to the microlending debt of public servants based in provincial departments.

Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital nurse and regional chairperson of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa, Yandisa Zungula, said the government’s unilateral decision-making smacked of arrogance, which began in 2019/2020 when the government reneged on the wage resolution that had already been agreed on.

Bargaining structure ‘nullified’

“Will we ever be able to negotiate and communicate if we know they can just go ahead and do whatever they want… the bargaining structure has been nullified,” said Zungula.

“We are working under terrible circumstances… a broken window takes two years to be fixed, and there is a shortage of medication, equipment, even something as basic as linen… At some point there wasn’t even bread for patients to eat.

“We are the biggest hospital in the southern hemisphere but there is no effort to ensure there is a quality experience for patients… we are understaffed… a nurse will be a porter and a cleaner — this is a 24-hour service but there isn’t even one cleaner overnight,” said Zungula.

Interdict

Meanwhile, the Gauteng Department of Health obtained an interim interdict against striking workers at the Johannesburg Labour Court on Tuesday afternoon. 

In a media statement, Motalatale Modiba, head of communication at the department, said the interdict is “against several unions to prevent their members from obstructing the rendering of health services to patients… 

“It also prohibits the protestors from destroying or damaging any property or preventing free movement or access to healthcare facilities of any of [the department’s] offices.”

The interdict also orders police to “assist the department when necessary to enforce the interim order, which will remain in effect pending the court date… of 1 March 2023,” said Modiba. MC/DM

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