South Africa: Rural Eastern Cape Nurses Demand Special Allowance

Health department agrees to meet nursing unions next week over allegations of unpaid allowances

Hundreds of nurses picketed outside the provincial Department of Health call centre in East London on Wednesday.

They are among around 5,000 enrolled nurses and nursing assistants from hospital and clinics in rural areas who claim the department owes them a special rural allowance.

The department head and senior official plan to meet union representatives next week to find a solution to the dispute.

"For the past three years we have been at the forefront of the fight against Covid without salary increments ... Pay the [Rural Allowances] due to us," said Thembinkosi Qwakanisa from the Amathole Region.

Qwakanisa was among hundreds of nurses from rural hospitals and clinics across the Eastern Cape who protested outside the provincial health department offices in East London on Wednesday. They were demanding to be paid rural allowances of 8% to 12%, which they believe will also attract more nursing professionals to work in rural areas.

The nurses claim the allowance is part of an agreement made between unions and the provincial health department at a 2019 bargaining council. They accuse health department head Dr Rolene Wagner of ignoring them.

"Wagner is taking us backwards. Instead of paying, she is dragging this matter back to negotiating tables. Even if we agree to renegotiate, they can start from what was agreed in 2019," said Qwakanisa.

Thandile Tshabalala, chairperson for enrolled nurses and nursing assistants, said that the allowance was paid to all nurses working in rural areas until it was stopped in 2007.

"We then fought for years for its reinstatement, but it was only reinstated for other categories, like the professional [staff] nurses only," she said. "We continued the fight which was led by NEHAWU until in 2019 when the department conceded in the bargaining council that we were entitled to this allowance. But it was poorly implemented in five regions because only few nurses were receiving it."

According to Tshabalala, about 5,000 enrolled nurses and their assistants are meant to get a rural allowance.

Tshabalala said they tried on several occasions to reach out to Wagner to resolve the matter to no avail.

Department spokesperson Yonela Dekeda told GroundUp that Dr Wagner was not aware of the nurses' requests to discuss the matter with her.

"According to department officials, there was no agreement reached with the protesting group in 2019. The Department is aiming to have a way forward on this by the end of June," said Dekeda.

She said Wagner plans to meet trade union representatives on 21 June.

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