E Cape hospital workers struggle for protection

Health workers at Frere Hospital say that the government and hospital management has ignored their demands. Photo by Mandla Mnyakama

Healthcare workers at Frere hospital in East London say that their working conditions have not changed since they last protested in June.

Amidst the rapidly increasing number of members of staff who have tested positive for the coronavirus with some succumbing to the infection, nurses at the Frere Hospital feel that there is more that is required to be done by their employers to guarantee their safety in the health facility.

The health workers complain that this public health facility in East London has continuously failed to observe the covid-19 regulations, even after repeated engagements by the hospital staff on the matter.

They accuse the hospital’s management of acting ignorant of their work grievances when these were submitted to them.

An experienced nurse at the hospital who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of victimisation told Elitsha that they work under difficult and poor working conditions.

“Here we get ruthlessly treated and get our employment rights suppressed. We demand transparency because our management constantly avoided communication with us as the working staff. They just like to decide for us as if we’re their own children. In most instances, they act in a biased manner. For example, when our management officials recently tested covid-19 positive, they got their offices immediately decontaminated, but they still failed to co-operate with us when we demanded the same treatment for the wards we work in or for implementation of contact tracing to control the virus spread after our colleagues tested positive,” she said.

Unresolved issues and demands raised earlier

Some of the demands that nurses have already made is that the hospital reveal the actual figures of health workers who have tested covid-19 positive, and that non-covid-19 wards where nurses have tested positive be de-contaminated to assure the safety of admitted patients and workers.

Furious nurses also reported that they were frequently deployed to covid-19 treating wards and compulsorily moved to other wards still wearing the same work kit and the same PPE (gloves and masks).

The health workers have also demanded the provision of dedicated transport to ferry them to and from work for their own protection from the virus.

According to the nurses Elitsha has spoken to, those who tested positive were forced by the bosses not to reveal their status to their colleagues even after they had returned from quarantine. They accused Frere Hospital bosses of being non-transparent and of failing to deal with the rising numbers of infections among its staff effectively.

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They were mostly required to quarantine in their own homes, something which worried the health workers as they would expose the relatives they live with in shacks, RDP homes or rented flats to infection.

Senior officials from the Eastern Cape Health Department, including the Health MEC, Sindiswa Gomba, allegedly ignored grievances from the nurses when they were repeatedly consulted.

Concerned staff still complained that all their pleas had fallen on deaf ears after they protested against their sub-standard working conditions and the hospital’s failure to train the staff for covid-19. This followed last month’s protest action at the Cecilia Makiwane Hospital. The Labour Department in May shut down the hospital after it found that the measures it implemented to control the spread of the virus to be inadequate.

Response by government

Another frustrated nurse alleged that Frere Hospital management and senior health department officials in Bhisho also failed to respond to written correspondences they forwarded to them in May.

“We do not know what else to do because MEC Gomba also failed to honour her own word after she promised to pitch up to address us at the hospital, earlier this month after we persuaded her telephonically to do so.

“This is an intolerable matter… When some of our colleagues who fell sick took their own sick leaves, our bosses tended to dispute the validity of their medical certificates… We regard it as illegal for an employer to do so and still make deductions from the health workers’ salaries,” complained the nurse.     

She added that their management became reluctant to act and respond positively to any work related matters they were consulted about.

“We had to pull out of the hospital’s Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) committee… because we discovered that the hospital lacked transparency. They have instead chosen to develop a negative attitude towards organised labour and ignore any issue we raise in this regard. You will find that our pleas fall on deaf ears with whatever we complain about to them,” she said.

Siyanda Manana, the Eastern Cape Health Department spokesperson, failed to respond to repeated phone calls from Elitsha after questions were forwarded to him.  

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Oscar Mabuyane, the Eastern Cape Premier, announced on Monday that they had deployed 70 South African National Defence Force health personnel to alleviate problems with staff shortages throughout provincial health facilities.   

Response by trade unions in the health sector

Zwelakhe Tywala, the Regional Secretary for the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union’s (Nehawu) Yure Mdyogolo Region in East London, said the union is deeply disturbed by the rising numbers of infections among their members at Frere Hospital, in particular in the laundry section which recorded 20 infections last month.

Tywala called for all the CEOs of health institutions to value, protect and respect the lives of all workers as they value their own lives and those of their loved ones.

He stated that they had repeatedly consulted last month with the head of the health department to seek his intervention for the protection of the laundry workers’ lives but they were disregarded.     

“As the organisation we have discovered that the arrogance and ignorance of the CEOs from Frere and Cecilia Makiwane hospitals became the worst contributors towards the increasing infections in both health institutions.

“We believe that if there is no adequate provision of the full work gear to guarantee the protection of our workers from covid-19, we will not live to see the Eastern Cape flattening the curve when it comes to fighting this infectious virus,” said Tywala.   

He vowed that the union will not rest until the lives of employees are treated as important as the service they provide for these hospitals.

On Monday, angry nurses from Settlers Hospital in Makhanda and Ezihlahleni Clinic near Dimbaza in King William’s Town engaged in protest actions outside the health facilities’ premises over poor work conditions and the lack of transparency on covid-19.

Elitsha has learned that Frere Hospital has recorded 102 of its staff who have been infected by the virus, including laundry attendants, mortuary staff and porters. Nehawu’s Tywala said that the union had confirmed 14 cases at the hospital in June.

Judy Ngoloyi, a spokesperson for the Health MEC, claimed that the Cecilia Makiwane Hospital in Mdantsane reported 165 cases of nurses with the virus.

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