Illegal strike by emergency workers over pay issues spreads to Bay and other parts of East Cape
AN illegal strike by Eastern Cape emergency services workers in East London on Monday spilt over into other parts of the province yesterday, forcing health officials to suspend some services.
Provincial Health Department spokesman Siyanda Manana said workers from the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) in Amathole, Nelson Mandela Bay and the Cacadu, Joe Qabi and Chris Hani districts had all downed tools.
While the situation at hospitals was still calm, the department was anticipating the worst.
“We have already put measures in place because we know that soon all the districts are going to down tools,” Manana said.
The department had also suspended all surgical operations which required patients to be transferred from one health facility to another.
It was seeking assistance from private ambulance companies throughout the province at a cost.
“We are constantly in touch with the ambulance companies through our call centre and have advised hospitals to keep those patients that need to be transported to their homes after treatment,” Manana said.
In Port Elizabeth, paramedics, drivers, administration staff and cleaners picketed inside their Korsten head office in Lindsay Road yesterday. They danced and chanted struggle songs.
The strike, prompted by the non-payment of salaries, overtime money, allowances and performance bonuses, began in East London on Monday.
Manana said: “The strike is illegal and heavy on us. The department is doing everything in its power to effect payment to our members, but some members do not have sufficient documentation.
“Although we understand their frustrations, what justification is there for the innocent lives that are being lost as they continue staying away from work.”
He said the department had received R191-million from the provincial executive earlier this year.
“To date, the department has effected payments of up to R9.1-million and it is continuing to do so although it is taking a little bit longer.”
Manana said the department would count the cost of the strike once it was over.
SA Emergency Personnel Union member Andile Dlula said the department was running out of solutions.
“Seriously, we are not backing down. We are not going back to work without our money being paid. The public will have to forgive us because the problem has been a long time coming.”
National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union provincial coordinator Nonana Mehlala said union members were not willing to return to work until “the employer comes to the party”.
“If they cannot pay our money now, then it will mean we will only be returning next year when the money will be made available.
“What is also surprising and ironic is the fact that the employer has contracted private ambulances during a strike while it refuses to give us our money.
“We have been engaging with the department over these matters since May but such talks failed to yield the desired results. There were times when the employer never pitched up,” Mehlala said.
Alderson Ambulances operations manager Alan Leicester said the department had called on their help on Monday afternoon.
“An immediate contingency plan was put into operation whereby we increased the number of operational ambulances to eight during the day and six during the evening,” Leicester said.
“In addition, three ALS [Advanced Life Support] response vehicles were made available to assist.”
He said Alderson’s Ambulances were in East London and Queenstown.
The department had also asked the company to assist with urgent medical and traumatic emergencies as well as critical inter-hospital transfers.
In Port Elizabeth, Gardmed Ambulance Services owner Dave Gardner said they would assist if asked.
“We hear they [emergency service workers] are on strike, but since we are private we are still working. The strike is bad, especially at this time of the year.
“I thought essential services people were not allowed to strike, but I do not know. They know the rules.
“We can assist if the [Health Department] needs us. We will keep on operating as usual,” Gardner said.
Paramedics 24/7 manager Rudy Robson said the province’s residents would suffer as a result of the strike.
“Our sole purpose is to serve the community, and when you strike you are not doing that. The financial issues should be sorted out in boardrooms.”
Eastern Cape health committee chairman Mxolisi Dimaza said the strike reaffirmed the committee’s call for the department to be put under administration by the national government.
“The department knew of the problems long ago and we do not believe that it possesses the capacity to solve this problem quickly,” Dimaza said.
“In the end, it is the ordinary person that suffers. The department continues to fail to deliver essential services to the people.”
DA MPL and health spokesman John Cupido said something needed to be done before lives were lost.
“The DA is calling on the MEC [Sicelo Gqobana] to take immediate action on the medical personnel strike which has left patients stranded.
“The illegal strike action has resulted in many patients being unable to make use of medical facilities. This is endangering the lives of people who are dependent on the government for their emergency health needs.
“The government is failing in the fulfilment of the constitutional promise of quality healthcare for all South Africans,” Cupido said.
At a health committee meeting yesterday where the issue was discussed, Cupido said they had demanded urgent intervention from Gqobana to resolve the grievances of medical personnel and to get them back to work before lives were lost.