BY KATHRYN CLEARY AND SUE MACLENNAN
A high-level delegation from the Department of Health, along with national and provincial labour union representatives is set for talks at Fort England Hospital (FEH) tomorrow. This comes after a confidential letter sent to the Department’s provincial office alleges intimidation of some staff by certain union members. The letter sent yesterday, 18 June, expresses critical concern for the well-being and safety of staff and patients at the level 3 psychiatric facility.
Along with allegations of race-based discrimination and harassment, the letter expresses the fear that staff will once again be forced out of the institution by union action.
The removal of Roger Walsh from his position as the hospital’s chief executive, as a result of union action in 2015 and 2016, made headlines. In February this year, a Labour Court judgment on Walsh’s appeal against his removal held that unions and their officials had unlawfully hounded Walsh from his post and the hospital. It held that the Department of Health’s failure at that time to respond appropriately to unlawful union action had set a dangerous precedent.
In his judgment, Andre Van Niekerk wrote of the Department, “Instead of reining in the unlawful behaviour of the unions and union officials [and]supporting the applicant in his endeavours to introduce some semblance of orderly management to the hospital, the Department and the MEC had ultimately engaged in what can only be described as appeasement and acquiescence and ultimately, craven capitulation to the unlawful demands by the unions to have the applicant removed from his post.”
This week’s letter expresses fears of similar action by union members and officials, with similar consequences, and pleads for protection from the Department against alleged intimidation.
The letter states that union members embarked on protest action yesterday Tuesday 18 June, toyi-toyiing outside the main administration building, and had planned to continue the protest today and tomorrow, Thursday 20 June.
Grocott’s Mail can confirm that roughly 20 Nehawu members picketed outside the hospital’s administration building just before 2pm today, 19 June, calling for a senior manager to step down. Nehawu’s Fort England Branch Secretary Phakamisa Soxujwa referred Grocott’s Mail to the union’s Regional Office for details of their grievances and intended action.
Deputy Regional Secretary of Nehawu’s Max Madlingozi Region, Khonaye Gxaleka, said in a telephone interview that he had set up a meeting between the union, the Department of Health’s provincial management and the hospital’s CEO tomorrow (Thursday) to discuss the matter. He said there was “no industrial action whatsoever” planned or under way.
“My understanding remains that workers had a picket at 1pm today. They returned to their workstations by 2pm,” Gxaleka told Grocott’s Mail. He said the union was “most definitely” aware of the Fort England members’ grievances, but said he would comment only after tomorrow’s meeting.
“Tomorrow we’re meeting with the Bhisho management and the CEO and we’ll take it from there,” Gxaleka said.
In response to questions from Grocott’s Mail, Department of Health provincial spokesperson Siyanda Manana said emphatically that no management staff would be forced out by unions.
“The workplace is an interracial place, therefore no union at Health has a right to rid the workplace of another race group. Our patients’ well-being is… paramount and the Department will not put their welfare at risk,” Manana said.
Nehawu was the only union picketing today and officials present told Grocott’s Mail they had yet to speak to the Democratic Nurses Association of SA (Denosa). Asked about representation from other unions representing staff at Fort England (Nupsaw, PSA and Hospersa), Soxujwa said he had no knowledge of their intentions.
Our reporters tried unsuccessfully to reach Denosa for confirmation whether they intended to join the Nehawu members’ action.
Grocott’s Mail understands that senior representatives of Hospersa will be at Fort England tomorrow; however, we were unable to establish whether they will be part of the Nehawu-organised meeting.
Manana confirmed that the Labour Relations Directorate from head office in Bhisho has a scheduled meeting tomorrow, 20 June, at Fort England Hospital.
Grocott’s Mail asked Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) Director Jay Kruuse what legislated process the Department of Health should undertake, following the staff member’s protected disclosure.
“These allegations should be thoroughly investigated,” said Kruuse. “Until the process is completed, no action should be taken against those who speak out.”
Kruuse said all too often government departments failed to follow that process.
“I would encourage the whistleblower to also send the correspondence to the Auditor General’s office and the Public Protector, who are also empowered to receive such disclosures and investigate them,” Kruuse said.