The Department of Health says they have received no notification from unions of a strike by the Province’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) staff and that there would be consequences for staff who failed to report for duty. This comes amid protest action by EMS staff on Friday 2 November and warnings to prepare for a possible shutdown of the service on Monday 5 November.
“There’s no strike as far as we are concerned,” Eastern Cape Department of Health spokesperson Lwandile Sicwetsha told Grocott’s Mail on Friday 2 November.
Earlier, Grocott’s Mail spoke to EMS staff from Makhanda (Grahamstown), Port Alfred, Alicedale, Alexandria and Kenton who were protesting at the Makhanda base.
The main grievances of the protesters were a long-running dispute about payment for excess hours; and the alleged shortage of resources for EMS to properly service the public.
Health & Other Services Personnel Trade Union of South Africa (Hospersa) shop steward Mbulelo Qonqa said the action was not union based. Participating in the action were members of the National Health, Education and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), Hospersa, the Public Service Association (PSA) and the South African Emergency Personnel’s Union (Saepu). However, said Qonqa, this was because they had lost confidence in the negotiating capacity of the unions.
The action came after a three-day retreat for Department officials and labour representatives at the Mpekweni Resort, Qonqa said.
Some of the long-running labour issues stemmed from 2003 when the local ambulance service was transferred from Makana Municipality to the Province.
“People who had been employed by Makana came in at a better pay scale than those employed by the Province,” said Qonqa.
Pay scales started at R135 000 a year, Qonqa said, depending on what year you were employed and your qualifications.
A 2007 resolution for all excess time (overtime) pay to be paid to staff had not been adhered to, Qonqa said. The current amounts were being paid, but not the historic amounts.
He said the Western Cape and Free State had resolved things by paying out workers what they were owed and reducing excess hours.
“We started negotiating about this last year and nothing’s changed,” he said.
A further grievance, he said, was that a shortage of ambulances meant they weren’t able to render a proper service to the public.
“The law says there should be one ambulance per 10 000 people,” he said. “We haven’t reached that after 20 years: instead we’re going backwards.”
Qonqa said there should be six ambulances in Makana; instead there were two operating in Makhanda (Grahamstown) and one in Alicedale. “The rest are broken,” he said.
“The community doesn’t know this and it’s the control room staff who have to deal with their frustration when we can’t respond promptly to doctors doing transfers, or MVAs (motor vehicle accidents).”
Sicwetsha today said there was no strike because for EMS staff it would be illegal.
“They know that EMS is an essential service and that striking is not allowed,” he said. “Not reporting for duty may be a life and death matter for the public and if staff don’t report to work, we will deal with the situation. We will monitor the rosters and for those not at work, there will be consequence management.”
Sicwetsha said he had heard rumours of “simmering” in other areas such as Port Elizabeth, but again emphasised that “they would never strike”.
“If staff don’t come to work, we will hire private ambulances to make sure the community continues to receive the service and then deal internally with misconduct,” he said.
Qonqa said, “We do care about our patients, but we have been pushed to the limit. If the Department cared about patients, it would have resolved this.
“How come they can pay for private ambulances when they can’t pay staff what they are owed?
“We are here for our patients but workers’ rights must be respected.”
He said EMS staff from Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage, Queenstown and East London were also involved in the action.
A communication seen by Grocott’s Mail advised EMS managers to be prepared for a possible shutdown by unions on Monday 5 November.