National Education and Health Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) members marched on the Pietermaritzburg offices of the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) on Monday as part of the ongoing national strike against the country's main provider of diagnostics to the public health system.
NHLS workers at different hospitals and clinics in the Harry Gwala municipality in KwaZulu-Natal downed tools last week over salary disputes and working conditions. The strike entered its sixth day on Tuesday. The NHLS management has agreed to a 7.3% salary increase, but negotiations with the union continued on Tuesday.
An employee from Edendale Hospital, who asked not to be identified, said: "We will continue until they engage and listen to us properly. The sad part is that we are here, so no tests can be taken to the lab. They must increase our salaries and provide the other benefits," said the employee.
In a frank interview with the Sunday Times Shabir Madhi, the acting CEO of the NHLS, described a collapsing institution. Asked by Chris Barron if the strike could have been avoided, he replied, "Probably not. We're in an extremely tight financial position." He said: "We will be technically bankrupt by November should the provincial health departments not pay us 100% of what they are procuring from us." The NHLS is owed over R5 billion by the provincial health departments and, said Madhi, if it isn't paid by November it will not be able to pay staff. Asked if the allegations of corruption are true, he replied "Completely true" and fingered the suspended Chief Executive Office, Chief Financial Officer and head of procurement.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the NHLS to public health. It is, for example, responsible for diagnostics and monitoring of the country's highest burden diseases including HIV and TB.
Nehawu spokesperson Khaya Xaba said the union was still in talks with employers.
"On [Tuesday] and Wednesday, we are continuing with the negotiations. Our members are the ones who will tell us what to do. So far they have decided to intensify the strike," said Xaba.
Nehawu's Zamisile Giyane said: "Laboratory employees work under dangerous conditions where they are exposed to diseases and viruses. That's why they deserve a fair salary. They also deserve to be compensated accordingly. The employer must begin to take the employees seriously otherwise there will be blood on the floor."
Negotiations are expected to continue on Wednesday.