According to a circular [below] sent out to all striking employees of the National Department of Health (NDoH) by the Director-General of Health, Malebona Precious Mtsoso last Friday, they must return to work today or face ‘no work, no pay’. This follows a Labour Court rulings issued on Friday compelling the workers to return to their desks after seven months of protesting ‘unsafe and unhealthy working conditions’.
In the beginning of the industrial action approximately 2,000 NDoH employees worked half day shifts [on full pay] between April and August, after strained negotiations between their trade unions, namely the National Education and Health Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), the Public Servants’ Association (PSA), and the Ministry of Health. The strike begun after the Headquarters of the NDoH housed in the Civitas building was labeled a ‘sick building’ with serious occupational health and safety issues. Some workers have taken ill, claiming their health conditions are the direct result of the building’s poor air quality.
In 2016 the National Occupational Safety Association (NOSA) released a report which found that more than half of the accessed areas of the Civitas building were not compliant with basic conditions set out in the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Two further inquiries have painted a worse picture for this overcrowded building which was originally designed to accommodate 800 workers and now houses just over 2,000. These reports have not yet been made public.
The Civitas building completely refurbished by the Palace Group of construction companies between 2004 and 2009, costing tax-payers R1 billion. At the time of it’s handover to the Department by the contractors it was heralded as an unrivaled state-of-the-art facility. Today, just eight years later it is labelled a ‘death trap’ and few people want to work in it.
After months a haggling with the Minister of Health and senior NDoH officials to address the long list of issues in the building, employees eventually downed tools on the 15th of August when they became weary of little progress being made. Approximately 400 workers have continued to stage pickets at the entrances of the building and inside the foyer, while the rest have stayed home.
During the pickets senior management who had continued working in the building were allegedly blocked from entering the side street entrances, forcing them to work elsewhere. It has been reported that Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has continued to work in his office on the 28th floor throughout the strike, claiming the building is safe.
There is no escaping the fact that the Civitas building has been badly maintained for the last eight years by the Department of Public Works (DoPW). The DoPW is responsible for site maintenance of all public buildings.
Tensions between the unions and the Department intensified after the Bank of Lisbon building in Johannesburg, where the Gauteng Provincial Department of Health is housed, caught fire on the 5th of September. Three firefighters lost their lives in the blaze.
The Gauteng provincial government has subsequently decided to evacuate nine government buildings that do not meet the minimum occupation health and safety standards. Finding alternative office space to accommodate them on short notice remains a challenge.
In an effort to deflect the Health Ministry’s responsibilities in this crisis Minister Motsoaledi called a joint press conference with Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi on the 7th of September, where they jointly alleged that some of defects in the building were the result of sabotage, and that there were two separate arson attempts at night, however evidence of this remains elusive and no suspect or motive has been revealed.
On the 14th of September, one week after the joint press conference, the PSA and NEHAWU launched urgent applications in the Labour Court to interdict the Department from docking their worker’s pay or dismissing them. This occurred after an ultimatum to return to work or be fired was issued by the Director-General.
On Friday the Labour Court ruled in favour of the Health Department, effectively forcing aggrieved staff to return to duty today, despite none of their grievances with breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act being adequately addressed.
NATIONAL MEDICINES REGULATOR CRIPPLED BY STRIKE
The newly established South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), [formerly known as the Medicines Control Council] is housed in the Civitas building. It too has also been severely affected by the strike. It has been reported that only nine of the its senior management team have continued to work off site, due to them being prohibited from entering the building by striking workers. At one point the SAHPRA’s Board decided to move the SAHPRA offices out of the Civitas building to a new commercial building, but were hampered in doing so by striking staff in solidarity with NDoH strikers. The vast majority of SAHPRA staff (+/- 200 people) are NEHAWU members.
For the last four months SAHPRA have only being able to process Section 21 medicine exemption applications and re-authorizations submitted by doctors wanting to prescribe medicines not yet approved in South Africa for their patients. More recently they have begun accepting electronic applications for new medicines.
Telephone calls made to the landline extensions of striking NDoH and SAHPRA employees have not been answered for months.
Emails sent to the official email addresses of striking NDoH and SAHPRA employees have not been answered since April.
The reception in the buildings’ foyer remains unattended and no mail or couriered documentation can be received.
Forcing NDoH employees to continue to work under such conditions will certainly amplify their genuine grievances.
They have a constitutional right to health and by being forced to return to work in the building runs roughshod over those rights.
It is expected that the PSA and NEHAWU will apply for leave to appeal Friday’s judgement in the Labour Appeal Court or High Court in the coming days.
The Labour Court on Friday ruled that it does not have jurisdiction to hear applications brought in terms of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
The Department of Public Works has pledged to hire a permanent Health & Safety Officer at the Civitas building to report on the maintenance being carried out and to continually assess occupational health and safety issues thereafter.
NEHAWU spokesman, Khaya Xaba had the following to say after Friday’s Judgement – “We still maintain our members should not go to that building, they cannot be compelled, it’s not safe and they cannot risk their lives. We would not even encourage general members of the public to do the same.”
Stay tuned for further updates.