WATCH | Ambulance strike over pay
Health department only attending to critical and life-threatening cases
The department of health says it will only respond to life-threatening emergency calls until its public ambulances are back on the road.
Emergency medical services came to a halt across the province when paramedics made good their threats and downed tools on Monday morning.
In East London, a ruckus broke out at the Vincent ambulance base when close to 50 paramedics took to the streets outside their building with placards and burning tyres, promising not to return to work until the department of health paid them their dues.
The Vincent base is the control area for Buffalo City Metro and Amathole district. Its shutdown has affected East London, Mdantsane, King William’s Town, Peddie, Cathcart, Stutterheim, and areas in Alice.
Turning tail and directing their bottoms at oncoming traffic, the paramedics sang “Batala, Mbengashe, ixesha lisondele”, calling for health superintendent-general Dr Thobile Mbengashe to pay their overtime money.
A spokesperson for the paramedics told the Dispatch that although ambulances were an essential health service, they were tired “of the department’s empty promises”.
“The department has been promising to pay us overtime since 2007 but nothing has happened. They’re not even paying us our current overtime.”
He said the paramedics were rebelling against the department’s delay tactics and demanding to be taken seriously.
“Service will be at a complete standstill until the money is in our account.
“We are an essential service only when it suits them [the department], but when it comes to things that affect us we are not recognised.”
In Komani the EMS strike was also in full swing and more than 200 paramedics from across the Chris Hani district protested at Komani Hospital.
The workers said they would not disperse until their leaders emerged and gave them the feedback they wanted to hear.
Government call centre agents told the Dispatch no ambulances were being dispatched in the province, and people needing medical services were being advised to find alternative transport.
Nurses at the Empilweni clinic in Gompo said families had resorted to hiring private cars (amaphela) to transport their sick relatives to hospital.
Provincial health spokesperson Lwandile Sicwetsha said the department’s interim measures included use of private ambulances to respond to life-threatening cases. He said the illegal strike was “really bad”.
“On Monday morning all our bases were non-operational, and staff were not responding to calls. By embarking on a strike they are endangering the lives of people who need medical attention.”
He said health management and union representatives met on Monday trying to find common ground to resolve the workers’ demands.
“The department confirms that a processing of excess hours for a period between 2015 and 2018 is under way. The outstanding dispute of 2003 to 2014 is still under discussion between the department and labour representatives.”
Sicwetsha advised people in need of help to dial the call centre number 0800-032-364.
Eastern Cape health MEC Helen Sauls-August said: “We are disappointed that the workers have embarked on an illegal strike knowing very well that they are employed as essential service employees and therefore are not allowed to strike. "
South African Emergency Personnel Union (Saepu) provincial chair Michael Mvuntshi said the strike would continue on Tuesday. “We have not reached an agreement with the employer. We will go and report to the workers on Tuesday in Bhisho.”
Mvuntshi apologised to the public for any inconvenience caused by the strike.
“All our workers under the unions involved – Nehawu, Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union of South Africa, Saepu and the Public Servants Association of South Africa – throughout the province were involved in the strike and tomorrow we will intensify our actions,” he said.
Last week Mvuntshi told the Dispatch the unions had met at the Mpekweni Resort but the department did not attend.
The meeting was supposed to be about development training, labour and human resources, as well as other operational aspects, he said. It was at Mpekweni that the unions decided nothing could go forward until the issue of excess hours had been resolved.
Sicwetsha said at the weekend that the provincial department had made submissions for the paramedics’ back pay to the department of public service and administration [DPSA] three months ago and they were still waiting for feedback from the national department.
“The DPSA will have to decide on the back pay because it is a national issue. In the meantime, the EMS employees are being paid according to the hours they work.”..