If the demands outlined in the recent national programme of action to protect frontline healthcare workers by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) are not met by government and key stakeholders in the healthcare sector between August and September, the country could find itself in the midst of “full blown action” by the organisation.
Nehawu recently outlined its plans to participate in various forms of protest action over the next few months, including a national day for its members to all apply for leave, a week of lunch-hour pickets across all sectors and a “complete withdrawal of labour in all sectors if there is no response favourable to our interests until all our demands are met.”
The union made the announcement during a media briefing held on Tuesday to disclose the outcomes of its series of fact-finding site-visits in selected public healthcare facilities in the wake of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus and rising cases of Covid-19.
According to Nehawu, the purpose of the visits was to assess the conditions under which healthcare workers were working including the availability of PPE, compliance with the OHS Act and the state of the institutions in terms of government’s criteria of the National Core Standards (NCS).
“The recent stats by the department of health indicates that as of 23 July 2020, about 13,174 healthcare workers were infected with Covid-19, while 107 workers had lost their lives. Out of the 13,174 infected workers, more than 10,275 of those workers are our members which they account for 78% of the reported numbers.”
“However, the statistics from the department of public service and administration (DPSA) reports that there are 22,329 public servants who are currently infected, which is contradictory from the number from [the department]. This makes to further doubt the veracity of the statistics communicated by government.”
“Since the announcement of the first infection in the country on the 5th March 2020, Nehawu has been at the forefront in sharply raising the lack of sufficient protection for its members and healthcare workers in general,” said the union in a statement.
The union then reflected on their engagements with key stakeholders, thus far including a meeting with the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC) in mid-March for deliberations on employers’ state of readiness and preparations for return back to work of public servants.
Nehawu also met with ministers of health, employment and labour, trade and industry and the then acting director general of the national department of health the following month, while in the middle of a legal battle initiated by the union in an effort to force the national and provincial departments to adhere to the prescripts of the Occupation Health and Safety (OHS) Act by providing PPE in order to protect the lives of frontline workers.
“In that meeting, assurances on the adequate PPE were given and measures were to be put in place to ensure safety of frontline workers and this led to Nehawu dropping its court action,” said the union.
“However, after analysing the data presented by government on PPE, we immediately submitted our own analysis as a response to departmental data analysis to ministers present at the meeting, which exposed the fact that what was available in stock was inadequate when measured against the headcount numbers of different categories of healthcare workers per institution and provincially.”
This finding, coupled with the rising numbers of infected frontline workers and fatalities, prompted the national union to deploy all its national office bearers to workplaces to check compliance to OHS Act, available PPE stocks, the establishment and functional workplace health and safety committees, the impact of the shortage of staff in hospitals and the training of workers and frontline workers in dealing with Covid-19.
“The programme focused on epicentre provinces such as Eastern Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape which helped us to empirically verify the information and complaints we received already from members in branches and regional structures.”
The union stated that its key findings from these visits have found that there is a lack of adequate provision of PPE, there is generally non-compliance with the OHS Act, there are serious staff shortages across the board and inadequate management proved to be a challenge in some facilities.
Some of the following instances were highlighted as case studies by the union:
“In some institutions, cleaning staff and porters are left unprotected because of the misconception that PPEs are only for clinical staff when they regularly have to clean and clear contaminated areas. 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.”
“Across the board, we have found no branch of the union that expressed satisfaction with the managers’ consultation process, where it is practised. Actually, at the Tygerberg Hospital labour was not even allowed to participate in the established ad hoc Covid-19 structure, despite the fact that it is healthcare workers that are more practically informed about what is happening and are most exposed to the contagion.”
“In fact, the question of the shortage of staff is so pervasive across public healthcare institutions that were visited and in other hospitals our teams found that nurses are being forced to do the work of cleaners and potters without necessary designated PPEs.”
“Our team discovered that members and workers are victimised on a daily basis and nothing is done to have a cordial working environment including the dropping of disciplinary measures as announced by the Minister of Health. Moreover, we also found out the following: When a member has tested COVID-19 positive, some managers would refuse to carry out fumigation (microbial fogging) to disinfect the affected institution or section thereof. Such behaviour endangers the rest of the workforce as well as other patients.”
The union alleges to have discovered that a number their members, especially shop stewards, have been victimised in one form or another just because they have raised questions about the lack of PPEs, the absence of daily screening of healthcare workers, and the refusal by managers to allow workers to go on self-isolation if they reasonably suspected that they have been exposed.
“Our shop stewards have been forced to sign confidentiality forms, which means that they are not supposed to report or raise concerns about how the institution is managing the Covid-19 issues, otherwise action would be taken against them. ”
The same can be said fir employees who refuse to work under the conditions that they deem unsafe because of the lack of PPE.
“For instance, two members of Nehawu were given final written warnings by management for refusing to perform their duties without PPEs at the Tygerberg Hospital. In a province such as the Western Cape, managers have rejected reports of infection in the workplace from workers and they would even go as far as to compel such workers, who may even have already been diagnosed Covid-19 positive, to work as long as they did not have or present symptoms.”
“At the General Justice Gizenga Mpanza Hospital – our team found that about two workers have been suspended after the management refused to provide a report to them on the rising infections within the facility.”
Nehawu also claimed to have uncovered problems of coordination and a broken referral system across all health districts nationally.
“For instance, as part of the site-visit in the Eastern Cape, our team found an unfolding disaster at the centre of which was the maternity ward at Dora Nginza Hospital. The hospital is supposed to work with about 7 feeder clinics, three of which were closed. This resulted in overcrowding at the hospital, which exposed the already ailing people to the danger of the Covid-19.”
As a result, the union’s members in public institutions are said to be questioning the authenticity or accuracy of the stats supplied by government on infections on a daily basis.
“Almost in all institutions, it was commonly held by the frontline healthcare workers that there was deliberate under-counting, especially with regard to the incidents and causes of deaths.”
The union lambasted government for its “woeful failure to develop a systemically coherent and coordinated cooperative governance and management of the public healthcare sector.”
The union then outlined their demands and proposals for the protection of the public healthcare workers, including calls for full compliance of the OHS Act by all workplaces, the implementation of risk assessment and infections control and prevention measures and the establishment of OHS committees in all workplaces.
You can read the full list of demands here.
The union would also like a system to be put in place that explicitly prohibits managers from issuing or communicating any kind of threats or intimidating notices or letters to workers in such a way that they are forced to work when they have been diagnosed Covid-19 positive but without symptoms or when they have been in contact with individuals diagnosed Covid-19 positive.
Should the situation not improve, the union plans to implement their national programme of action to protect workers from the virus will be implemented as follows:
30 July – 11 August 2020: the national union will meet workers in all sectors where we organise especially those in public healthcare, private healthcare, South African Social Security Agency (SASSA), Lancet and Ampath, National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), Department of Employment and Labour inspectors, Community Healthcare workers, Special Investigative Unit (SIU), the higher education sector, social development as part of mobilisation towards the implementation of the plan of action.
10 August – 15 August 2020: In the same period the national office will be meeting strategic partners of the union such as SASCO, YCLSA and other progressive organization relevant to sectors where we organize and also meet the following Ministers and Director Generals, Public Service and Administration, Health, Employment and Labour, Trade and Industry, Social Development, Higher Education and Training, Science and Technology, SASSA CEO and SARS Commissioner including CEOs of BIG 3 Private Health Companies (Netcare, Mediclinic and Lenmed) and local private hospitals.
21 August 2020: “Tsaya le tsatsi la Leave” all our members in all the provinces will on this day flock to the offices of the employer and all apply for a day leave.
24 August – 27t August 2020: Lunch Hour Pickets across all sectors.
28 August 2020: Siyahlala Day of Action, all workers across all sectors shall lockdown themselves at home and not go to work on this day.
31 August 2020: Work to rule campaign by all members across all sectors.
1 – 2 September 2020: Hoot in support of Frontline Workers motorcade in all provinces and regions in recognition and appreciation of the good work and sacrifice demonstrated in saving lives of South Africans at the expense of their own lives.
3 September 2020: National Day of Action in a form of demonstrations across provinces where memorandums shall be handed over targeting the National Parliament, Presidency Office and Premier’s Offices. The National Office Bearers will be deployed in these office and Provincial Office Bearers to address these demonstrations and submit memorandums.
10 September 2020: Full Blown Action – Complete withdrawal of labour in all sectors if there is no response favourable to our interests until all our demands are met.