The Eastern Cape public health system could find itself under severe strain as Cosatu-affiliated trade unions, Denosa, Nehawu, Nupsaw, Pawusa and Saepu call for their members to embark on strike action.
The unions have called for tools to be downed in solidarity with the protesting Eastern Cape post-community service nursing professionals and Covid-19 contract workers, whose contracts expired at the end of December.
A number of healthcare professionals at Bhisho Hospital, Cofimvaba Hospital and Frontier Hospital in Komani embarked on protest action on Friday.
In a letter seen by Sunday World, the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA called for mass protests at all health institutions where it has membership across the province.
The unions cited the lack of commitment by the provincial health department to retaining and recruiting a sound workforce.
National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union Buffalo City regional secretary Sweetness Stokwe said it supports the call by Denosa to down tools and put pressure on the provincial health department to retain the workforce that is on the verge of being unemployed.
Stokwe lashed out at provincial politicians and said they are uncaring about public health and its workforce because they go to private healthcare when they are sick.
Nehawu and Denosa have offered their offices as accommodation for post-community service nursing professionals (also known as Commserves) after they were threatened with arrest at Bhisho Hospital.
Commserves began their protest action outside the Eastern Cape health department offices on Tuesday, after receiving letters of termination at the beginning of this month.
There were about 634 nursing students who were in their final month of community service in various hospitals and clinics by the end of March but some did not receive letters of termination after their community service was extended.
But their colleagues said they should all be absorbed automatically as that had been the standard practice over the years.
Commserves say it takes up to five months to be registered as a professional nurse after community service, which renders them unemployable elsewhere without registration by the Nursing Council.
Covid-19 contract workers whose contracts were terminated at the end of December also joined the protest and called for absorption, claiming that they are subjected to unfair interview processes when they have displayed competence during Covid-19.
The spokesperson for the embattling department, Yonela Dekeda, said the department cannot afford R358-million it will cost to absorb the Commserves.
Dekeda said it will be R1-billion to absorb all the 8 399 Covid-19 contract workers.
She said the department experienced cuts in its budget allocation by the National Treasury and it has accruals of R4.5-billion in the 2022/23 financial allocation from the previous financial year as a result of medico-legal claims.
Meanwhile, the protesters claimed that the department is thumbsucking the figure as it is nowhere close to R1-billion.
On Wednesday, Eastern Cape health department head Dr Rolene Wagner met representatives of the Covid-19 contract workers and of the Commserves. The meeting, which lasted 13 hours, ended in a deadlock.
Eastern Cape health MEC Nomakhosazana Meth failed to show up during the zoom session.
A representative of the protesters, Nomvo Makata, accused Wagner of misleading them with claims that it is unlawful to automatically absorb employees without giving others a fair chance through interviews.
“Dr Wagner has been shifting the goalposts. At first, she said she’s got legal advice. When we asked to see the entire document she said Dr Sibongile Zungu [former acting provincial health head of department] was the one who obtained the advice. Later she said it is a document from the department of public service and administration.”
She said if Wagner was correct, it would mean most of the Eastern Cape’s public servants who were absorbed after internships were there illegally.
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