The Gauteng Health Department has warned protesting HIV counsellors and home-based care-givers that there will be consequences if they don't return to work immediately. But it also admits it might not be able to pay them on time if they do.
Gauteng HIV counsellors and home-based care-givers are on strike as they have not been paid for up to four months. The Chief Director of the HIV/AIDS programme in the provincial health department, Nomsa Mmope, warned this week that the department will impose a "no work, no pay" principle if they don't return to work.
"The principle of "no work, no pay" applies. But we don't want to go there. We just would like to appeal to them to go back to work", Mmope said.
The protesting workers have responded by saying that they are not in a position to return to their posts because they cannot afford it.
"At the end of the day they expect each and every person to be at work. How can we manage to go to work without any payment? Honestly, we are parents we are bread-winners When you leave at home, people are expecting you children are expecting you to bring bread at home. Unfortunately, at the end of the day you come home without anything. Enough is enough! We can't go on like this", says Lucky Mokone, a member of a task team that represents the 6000-plus protesting AIDS counsellors and home-based carers in the province.
Mokone says every year around this time they battle to get their R1 500 monthly stipends from the Gauteng Health Department. This is due to the department delaying new payments to non-governmental organisations that contract the services of counsellors and care-givers.
"They call it a dry season, whereby at the end of the financial year - that will be as from April, May, June - people won't get paid. Sometimes, it goes furthermore than that. You'll find almost six months people are not paid. There is no payment that has been made to any of the NGOs", Mokone says.
The Health Department has confirmed that it hasn't paid any NGOs to provide counselling and home-based care services.
"We have not contracted any organisation to work with us for this current financial year, which obviously begins in April and May. So, if we haven't contracted any NGOs, we therefore, cannot talk about not having paid anyone", according to Mmope.
But Mmope's statement then begs an answer to this question: Is it fair of the Gauteng Health Department to demand that these people return to work if they have not been contracted to do the work? She further went on to give the provincial health department's view of why this situation has occurred.
"The counsellors staged a protest and submitted a memorandum to the Department of Health, to say that they no longer want to work under the NGOs. They want to work independently or alternatively be absorbed into the departmental structure. We were about to sign the contracts of the NGOs that we were going to contract for this financial year. Then we were stopped by this protest action by the counsellors", she said.
Counsellors and home-based carers have cited concerns of exploitation and lack of recognition for their contribution to the health service as reasons for wanting to be formally absorbed into the Health Department. In some provinces, including KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo, home-based carers are formally part of the public health sector work-force. But the Gauteng Health Department says it cannot afford to absorb the 6 000-plus people into the system in this current financial year, especially given its financial woes.
Meanwhile, Mmope urges counsellors and care-givers to return to work, even though she can't say when they will start getting paid.
"Care-givers and lay counsellors, we value your work. We know the importance of your services. Please go back to work. For the work that you've done, you will be paid", she says.
When asked: 'If they start work tomorrow, for example, are they guaranteed payment at the end of the month'?
Mmope replied: "You are putting me in a very difficult position I'd like to say, let me go and follow this matter up because it's now not in my hands. It's somewhere else. I can do the follow-up and try and request them to speed the process such that, at least, by the end of the month they are paid for the whole three months. But, yes, they will be paid. But I can't say (at) the end of the month".