Patients turned away as protest continues

There were rows of empty waiting room benches at Port Alfred’s main clinic this morning, Tuesday 7 March, as a strike by labour union Nehawu entered its second day. Patients arriving at the usually busy facility adjoining the hospital were turned away.

Local WhatsApp groups alerted Port Alfred residents to the local strike action after community members were turned away from the town’s main clinic and even the hospital. Talk of The Town went down to check and was met with an empty clinic as opposed to the usually packed clinic with rows of patients seated on the benches outside. 

Services were not available at the public health institutions on Monday and Tuesday due to the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union’s (Nehawu’s) national strike. This was despite the labour action being interdicted by a Labour Court ruling. The trade union is demanding a salary increase of 10 to 12%, while the Department of Public Service and Administration has proposed an increase of only 4.7%.

While staff at the clinic in town were at work, they were afraid to attend to patients because they were being monitored by striking members. Instead, patients were turned away and politely told to visit the clinic the next day, March 8, when the strike is expected to end. 

Provincial health department spokesperson Yonela Dekeda said only one of the five unions representing health workers supports the strike action. She said it was concerning that health service providers who are not participating in the protest were being intimidated and denied access to their work stations. 

“The disruptive actions by certain members at some health facilities around the province affects access by the non-protesting staff and also denies patients access to health care services,” Dekeda said. ”Such acts of intimidation and violence violate the constitutional rights of the people to life and access to healthcare. Any form of violence and intimidation directed at health workers, patients and infrastructure is condemned in the strongest terms,” she said.

Dekeda cautioned striking Nehawu members that the health sector cannot stop providing essential health services to the public. 

“The Eastern Cape Department of Health has noted with concern acts of violence and intimidation by some members affiliated to NEHAWU trade union during the ongoing strike action in some health facilities this morning. The department wishes to reiterate that health is an essential service,” Dekeda said. 

“This means strike action in our sector is unprotected and unlawful, more so where these acts of intimidation and withholding of services affect our ability to provide care and makes our employees feel threatened,” cautioned Dekeda. 

On Monday, Nehawu issued a statement encouraging its members to continue with their Public Service Strike. “As NEHAWU, we remain resolute that no amount of court intimidation by the government will deter us from this noble worthy cause that we have embarked on – fighting for public servants, defending collective bargaining and rights of workers. We shall not retreat no surrender. It’s Aluta Continua,” the statement reads. 

The MEC for Health, Nomakhosazana Meth has also condemned the strike. 

“We understand that workers have a right to demonstrate but when they do they cannot infringe on the rights of others. We cannot afford to have a situation where the lives of patients and staff not on strike are in danger as a result of the action of those who have embarked on this action. We have noted that the NEHAWU-affiliated workers have embarked on the strike despite being interdicted by the high court. Such lawlessness is condemned with the contempt it deserves. We urge workers to go back to their work stations so that we will continue delivering quality health and care services to our people,” MEC Meth said. 

While the strike continues, Dekeda said a no work no pay principle will apply to all the officials who are participating in the strike action.