Staff at Fort England Hospital in Grahamstown returned to work yesterday afternoon following a meeting with Department of Health officials. This came after two days that saw specialist clinical staff in the kitchens preparing meals for patients under police guard, as strikers threatening to close down the facility unless CEO Roger Walsh was axed.
National Health and Allied Workers Union chairperson Thando Mtshalala yesterday afternoon confirmed employees had returned to work and said this was as a result of the Department yesterday Tuesday 19 July telling them that Walsh was to be redeployed to Bhisho.
The Eastern Cape Department of Health yesterday afternoon confirmed to Grocott’s Mail that Walsh had been redeployed.
Patients at Fort England Hospital went without food or medication until nearly midday on Monday 18 July, and managers and professional staff spent two days in the facility’s kitchens, preparing and delivering meals under police protection as a work stoppage by organised labour at the facility sought to bring operations to a halt.
The action was sparked by the delivery of a report last Friday on an investigation into allegations by the National Health and Allied Workers Union against the hospital’s management. The report is a 150-page document compiled by advocate Amelia Da Silva, appointed through the Office of the State Attorney, in turn commissioned by the Eastern Cape Department of Health to conduct an independent inquiry.
The findings of the report, commissioned in April and dated 8 July, were presented to organised labour at Fort England on Friday 15 July.
Objecting to the report’s findings, union leaders called on members of Nehawu, the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa and the National Union of Public Sector and Allied Workers to bring the hospital to a halt.
Early on Monday a group of around 30 people singing, carrying sticks and blowing whistles went into the hospital wards, disrupting ward routines and threatening staff, according to witnesses.
A memorandum from divisional and clinical managers at the hospital dated 19 July and addressed to Dr Thobela Nogela (deputy director-general, human resources) and Dr Litha Matiwane (deputy director general, health services cluster) alleges that violent threats to forcefully remove Walsh and burn down the hospital were made at the 15 July meeting.
They reported subsequent widespread intimidation and forceful removal of many staff from wards, offices and essential support services, including the kitchen.
At one point on Monday morning 18 July a group of around 50 people gathered outside the hospital’s main gate.
Grocott’s Mail on Monday morning found police on guard outside the kitchens as a handful of clinical staff along with some administrative staff and nursing managers prepared meals for the patients. Patients eventually received their first meal of the day, along with their medication, shortly before midday on Monday.
According to the memorandum, the situation escalated yesterday, Tuesday 19 July, with “ongoing industrial action, widespread intimidation, forced removals of staff from wards, offices and essential services and threats of violence to clinical staff who were attempting to prepare food in the kitchen and dispense medication in the wards”.
Grocott’s Mail has a copy of a summary of the report’s overall findings and recommendations.
In it, Da Silva says she found no evidence to support allegations against hospital management of mismanagement, corruption or negligence, nor that disciplinary procedures were flouted.
Her recommendations include workshops to inform the labour force about the matters on which they have a right to be consulted as opposed to those in which their consensus is needed.
With regard to terms and conditions of employment and the respective roles of management and the labour force, as well as relevant policies and guiding legislation, the report says, “it was evident that the trade union representatives were generally equally as uninformed as the rest of the labour force”.
The report summarises the overall situation as one of workplace conflict and recommends that independent HR professionals and conflict management experts be engaged to resolve the impasse.
A doctor who works at Fort England, who cannot be named, due to possible victimisation said as doctors they were under the impression that it was business as usual on Monday. But when they reported for duty they found a mob of about 30 people singing, carrying sticks and blowing whistles in the hospital wards.
“I went to my car, not sure if it was safe to come out or not,” he said.
The doctor said people were sworn at and harassed, including those who were walking around going to the tuck shop to try to get food for patients. He said the situation was bad especially for the patients because they are used to a certain routine.
“And all of a sudden today [Monday, 18 July] by 10am and they hadn’t eaten or taken their medication,” he said.
The doctor said even for a person who is mentally stable it is easy to get agitated and irritable when they are hungry.
“Imagine what that does to a person who has an underlying mental illness risk. So we were really worried about that.”
Some staff members were eventually allowed into the kitchen at about 10am and they immediately started preparing breakfast for the patients.
“I think the patients then started eating at about 11.30am to midday, and that’s very late for the patients, because they need to go to activities like occupational therapy and gardening and so on, as part of the rehabilitation program to get them ready to go back to the community. But they were not able to do any of this today,” he told Grocott’s Mail on Monday.
The doctor said they were working by 3pm on Monday but they were not performing their actual duties.
“We are basically making food for the patients at the moment,” he said.
When Grocott’s Mail spoke to striking employees at the hospital on Monday, two main themes emerged.
The first was that as far as they were concerned the only resolution for the impasse was the removal of Walsh, irrespective of the investigation’s finding.
The second was frustration with the slowness of grievance procedures, as well as what some said was an inadequate response by the leadership of the Eastern Cape Department of Health.
One employee who spoke to Grocott’s Mail emphasised that they were not on strike.
“We are just sharing our anger and disappointment at the fact that the Department is not able to hear our cry.”
“When the report came on Friday, it was not what we were expecting to find. It didn’t address our grievances with the CEO,” said Nehawu chairperson Thando Mtshalala.
“Instead it reduced our grievances to poor relations between management and the labour relations officer.”
Mtshalala said adding to their frustration was that they had been told the report would be completed in 30 days.
“But we’ve waited for more than 90 days. We ourselves followed up. Bhisho were playing hide and seek when we asked for the report.
“So when the report came on Friday, at the meeting we told Bhisho that if they don’t remove Dr Walsh immediately there will be a complete shutdown.”
Mtshalala said around 250 people from various departments were joining the action. There were around 50 people on the hospital lawns.
Mtshalala explained that some were on night shift, and some were on lunch.
Not having access to the report in which the grievances are listed, Grocott’s Mail asked staff assembled on the lawns opposite the kitchens to summarise their main allegations.
One employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “He is arrogant. He takes decisions without consulting. It’s his way or no way.”
Nehawu shop steward Phakamisa Soxujwa said that:
* There are cases when [an employee]will be operated on and have to return to work the next day;
* There are unfair labour practices. We have been following grievance procedures but these take time.
* People have been resigning and taking transfers because they are unhappy;
* Patients haven’t had new clothes, but money was spent on fencing, and renovating the [on-premises] house for one of the managers to live in;
* At [management]meetings we were told that the unions were observers, not [decision makers]. On other occasions we would reach a decision, only to find that a different decision had already been taken and/or implemented.
Soxujwa said, “This is our last resort. We have engaged with the Department since 2014.”
Denosa member Ntombizodidi Ngcosini said, “This [unhappiness]has been a long-standing problem since 2014. It is the culture of our employer that they don’t take people seriously.
“We have been crying for a long time.”
Another employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, also laid some of the blame at the Department’s door.
“This situation is beyond what Fort England can manage,” the employee said. “It needs decisive leadership [from the Province]to resolve this.
“Look, Roger Walsh might not be popular, but he is the best CEO the institution has had for a long time.”
Late last year, staff at the hospital wrote a letter in response to a November 2015 petition calling for Walsh’s removal as CEO. Grocott’s Mail has a copy of the letter.
In the letter to the Health Department, the eight senior professional staff say: “Whilst there may be some that disagree with the leadership style of the CEO, we have no doubt that Dr Walsh has not expected anything beyond what is required of legislation, official institutional and Departmental policy, and individual job descriptions.”
In their 19 November letter, which is addressed to Nogela and Matiwane the staff express confidence in Walsh as CEO, saying Fort England has progressed and improved in many ways under his leadership.
“Since Dr Walsh arrived, he has managed the institution with fairness, innovation, enthusiasm, energy, and dedication.
“His commitment to Batho Pele principles,streamlining administrative and managerial efficiency, enriching the work conditions of all employees, and above all, improving the quality of patient care, is clear to us.”
The Da Silva report says: “I could not find fault with the management style at FEH. The lack of communication between management and the labour force appears to have originated from a time when the workforce stopped attending ITU meetings after November 20915. The reason for the withdrawal of the work force is that management took decisions without consultation and the workforce consequently felt marginalised and excluded.”
Eastern Cape Department of Health spokesperson Siyanda Manana Tuesday evening 19 July confirmed that Walsh had been redeployed to Bhisho and that hospital manager Jenny Holder was henceforth to work at Settlers Hospital.
“This is to ensure there is normality in the institution,” Manana told Grocott’s Mail.
Walsh told Grocott’s Mail he was currently in negotiation with the Department “as to the need, wisdom or legality of the proposed redeployment of managers”.
He expressed his gratitude to the hospital’s administration, nursing and clinical staff who stood up to intimidation and threats to ensure the patients received care.
He said he was also grateful to the SAPS in Grahamstown for their assistance in getting access for the hospital staff to the kitchen and escorting deliveries of food to the wards.
Walsh said it had been a very stressful period for him personally, as well as all employees of the hospital.
Fort England is a government funded Psychiatric Hospital and drug rehabilitation centre serving Makana Municipality. At a staff complement of 398 it is the second-biggest employer in Grahamstown (Rhodes University at around 1 700 permanent and 500 contract staff is the biggest).
Fort England can accommodate 300 patients.
The hospital departments include a rehabilitation centre, pharmacy, anti-retroviral treatment for HIV/Aids, and post trauma counselling services.
It also serves as a National Maximum Security Facility that employs 50 staff.
Walsh said the facility had received a successful visit from the Health Professionals Council of South Africa yesterday Tuesday 19 July.