South Africa: Cosatu Supports Nehawu's Decision to Mobilise Workers Against an Intransigent and Irresponsible Department of Health

press release

The Congress of South African Trade Unions has noted with alarm the results of fact-finding site-visits by our affiliated union, NEHAWU, to selected public healthcare facilities across the country. The union conducted these site-visits to check the working conditions of frontline workers and also look at the level of compliance by the government with the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS) and the provision of PPEs.

The NEHAWU report identified a dangerous lack of adequate provision of PPEs, chronic staff shortages, non-compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act as well as the OHS direction, victimisation of workers and a dysfunctional district healthcare system. It paints a dire picture of an overburdened and an ill-equipped workforce that is constantly victimised for speaking up and does not get the necessary support from the department.

This is a disheartening report when across the country brave and dedicated health professionals are facing an extraordinary assignment of taking care of the nation to fight a deadly pandemic. These heroes and heroines are being badly let-down despite the assurances that have been made by the government.

This constant failure to provide workers with adequate protection, lack of compliance with the OHSA and the victimisation of those who speak out is completely outrageous. COSATU encourages workers to exercise their legal right to refuse to work in dangerous conditions. All unions should work together to protect workers from victimisation.

The Minister of Labour has been explicit in saying that; "Employees have a right to refuse to work if they have a reasonable belief that necessary precautions have not been put in place to prevent the transmission of Covid-19"

The general safety regulations in terms of the occupational health act states: "An employer shall not require or permit any employee to work unless such an employee uses the required safety equipment or facility provided in terms of this or any other regulation. "

It has been proven that the Covid-19 virus thrives in workplaces that generally limit the rights of workers, as workers are disempowered to exercise their labour rights for fear of victimization and abuse by the employers.

Noncompliance and the abuse of workers' rights are the two biggest threats to the containment of the Covid-19 virus in the workplace and the fact that the department of health is amongst the culprits is unforgivable. The department of health report that shows that about 13, 174 healthcare workers have been infected with COVID-19, while 107 workers have lost their lives is a testament to this fact.

Compliance with health and safety conditions and protocols in response to the virus is a matter of life and death and the lackadaisical attitude of the department of health is not only destroying the morale of these frontline workers but it has deadly consequences.

We are disappointed that the outcomes of the April 2020 meeting between the Minister of Health Zwelini Mkhize and NEHAWU have not been honoured by the department. This is widening the trust deficit that already exists between the government and its employees.

We urge the Department of Health and Minister Mkhize to arrange an urgent meeting with the NEHAWU and COSATU to deal with this depressing report by the union. This time the meeting must produce robust actions to deal decisively with occupational health and safety concerns in health care facilities. This is not the time for hollow and meaningless platitudes. The Safety of workers is non-negotiable, and the minister needs to be attentive and respond because lives are at stake.

We support NEAHWU's decision to mobilise workers to fight against this intransigent and irresponsible attitude by the department of health. We cannot allow these frontline workers to be forced to work under unsafe conditions. Workers must now be mobilised and empowered to defend their lives; anything less is tantamount to sending them to their early graves.

We call on all unions and workers to rally behind this campaign to save lives. Workers sell their labour and not their lives.

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