Court Orders Striking Medics and Nurses to … Get Back to Work

by Aug 24, 2010All Articles

– But unions slam profligate ministers

By Staff Reporters

22 August 2010

Trade unions have threatened to continue their civil service strike – defying a court order that doctors, nurses and other essential services staff return to work.

The urgent interdict was granted yesterday after the government approached the Johannesburg Labour Court.

Nine public sector unions – including the Public Service Association, teacher unions Sadtu and Naptosa, as well as the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union and the National Health and Allied Workers’ Union – were ordered to pay the costs of the court application.

By law, those providing essential services – such as police officers, immigration officers at high-security points, emergency workers and paramedics – are not allowed to strike, but over a million civil servants downed tools on Wednesday, causing chaos at many of South Africa’s hospitals and schools.

The minister of health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, did an all-night shift at Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital on Friday.

Motsoaledi, who last worked as a doctor 16 years ago, stitched up the wounds of at least a dozen stab victims.

“I don’t want people to die, so that’s why I am going to work,” Motsoaledi said. “I can still perform a Caesarian section if it comes to the push.”

Ordinary South Africans, including children, are mopping floors, changing dirty laundry, feeding patients and cooking meals at strike-hit hospitals.

Yesterday’s court order also prohibits strikers from the “intimidation, assault, molesting and victimisation of non-striking public service employees and members of the public (including patients at hospitals and pupils and teachers at schools)”.

The minister of public service and administration, Richard Baloyi, warned that striking workers were “volunteering themselves out of work”.

His spokesman, Dumisani Nkwamba, said essential service workers must return to work immediately.

“If they don’t, there will be consequences,” he said, but refused to say if the government would carry out its threat to fire or suspend striking workers.

Government spokesman Themba Maseko said: “The application for the interdict follows the decision (at) the meeting of the ministers from the security and social clusters that took place on Friday morning in Pretoria.

“Anyone who commits any acts of criminality during the strike will be prosecuted promptly.”

The standoff between the government and the country’s 1.3 million civil servants looks set to continue, as neither side appears willing to budge – clashing over an extra 1.6% salary increase and an additional R300 housing allowance.

The leaders of teachers’ union Sadtu questioned the government’s willingness to blow millions of rands on expensive cars and hotels, but refused to make sacrifices to pay public servants.

An irate Baloyi responded: “Do they want ministers to ride on scooters when they do their work or drive 1400 bakkies? It’s unfortunate to link these two, as if it’s for the first time to see ministers riding in these vehicles. Even during apartheid time ministers were using vehicles such as Mercs … it is a tool of our trade.”

Economist Chris Hart suggested that, as a gesture, cabinet ministers could scale down their spending.

“Unbridled opulence creates resentment among the workers. There needs to be an improvement in the efficiency of government to attract our teachers, nurses, doctors and police and make sure they can live a decent life,” he said.

Meanwhile, Maseko said the government could not afford to meet the unions’ demand for an 8.6% pay increase, and did not support the notion of halting key projects to fund salaries.

While there are no official figures for lives lost during the strike, Dr Alan Peter, head of the ward 20 medical admissions department at Baragwanath, said he believed “close to 100” patients who would normally have been treated by his department may have died at their homes owing to the crisis.

The hospital normally admits 140 patients a day, and an average of 17 die every 24 hours, even with treatment. Peter said only 14 were admitted to the ward on Thursday and fewer than 20 on Friday.

He said around 30 patients were admitted yesterday. “The question is: what’s happening to those other 110 very sick people? We know that many will be dying at home.”

Nehawu spokesman Sizwe Pamla said the government could not use a court interdict as a basis for firing essential workers, because a minimum service-level agreement between the state and unions had not been signed.

“In 2007, they dismissed 300 nurses, but were forced to reinstate them because the government had not signed the agreement,” said Pamla.

“We are not worried or intimidated by the interdict. Our members in the essential services of the state will be on strike tomorrow, with or without the court interdict.”

Cosatu provincial secretary Dumisani Dakile described the interdict as “high-handed”.

“A hundred court orders will not resolve this strike and we will not be ambushed by an interdict when the government has failed to agree on the minimal service-level agreement. Solutions can only be found in negotiations.”

Sadtu president Thobile Ntola slammed the government’s unilateral implementation of the 7% increase as “declaring war against the workers. We call upon every public servant to down their tools and join the strike: police, nurses, social workers, prosecutors, doctors. Even soldiers must join the strike.”

Scores of ordinary South Africans have been prompted by the situation in hospitals and schools to become volunteers. These include :

•    Daniella Walner, 16, and Bronwyn Robertson, 15, from Johannesburg, worked as cleaners in the maternity ward at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg;

•    An 85-year-old from a Johannesburg old-age home sent R20 to Garden City private hospital in an envelope, with the promise that she would do so once a month until she’d donated R100. The hospital is caring for several babies from state hospitals;

•    Monique Claassen, 23 – a hotel industry student – joined her mother, Margaret, and her sister, Janine, in volunteering at Helen Joseph Hospital. While she washed dishes and prepared food in the kitchen with “eight or nine other volunteers”, Janine – a nurse – worked in the intensive-care ward, where “there was only one single nurse on duty”;

•    IT student Tina Mdlane, who heard a radio broadcast for help, went to mop floors and move patients between wards at the same hospital; and

•    Nurse Rebecca Strydom, who volunteered at Garden City. “This is why I became a nurse,” she said. “This strike is a crime against humanity. Nurses who strike shouldn’t be nurses”.

Source: Sunday Times

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