NEHAWU calls on the Minister of Health to stop treating the national union like a labour desk of his department

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union [NEHAWU] note with shock and disbelief the contents of the statement issued by the Minister of Health, Dr. Zweli Mkhize, through Dr. Lwazi Manzi and Mr. Popo Maja particularly because it was meant to respond to the release of our fact-finding mission report as the first sentence indicate so. However, we are disappointed by the assertions made by the statement which unfortunately have no bearing to our fact-finding report as submitted to the Minister.   

A copy of the report was sent to the Minister as a first person taken into confidence by the national union about the report in the evening of the 27th July 2020 a day before it was presented at a press conference and released to the public. As NEHAWU, we had expected that the Minister would seek audience with the leadership of the national union to be taken through the report in detail with a view to develop a concrete plan of action aimed at fixing the problems raised by the report. The Minister instead elected to acknowledge the report via a press statement without any intention to put measures in place to urgently attend to the concerns raised by members and workers during the fact-finding mission.

When we met with the Minister on the 8th April 2020 we thought we had put behind us the days of not being treated like a critical and important stakeholder which is the biggest union in the sector and transformative in character that has constantly championed the struggles of workers in relation to their working conditions and safety in the workplace.

The reason we went to court in the first place was to force the Minister of Health to have engagements with us on the outbreak of coronavirus so that plans are in put place to protect workers from getting infected. Indeed, the meeting held with Ministers of Health, Employment and Labour and Trade and Industry made many commitments, which unfortunately were not communicated to provinces and that have since fallen by the wayside.

For example, the Minister promised to establish a project management team that was to be located in his office to strengthen coordination with the Occupational Health and Safety [OHS] committee and elevate issues speedily in terms of safety, supply of Personal Protective Equipment [PPEs] and training of workers. The team was never established instead the Minister established a Ministerial Advisory Committee [MAC] with the Minister of Social Development with a specific focus on social behaviour and community mobilisation. It has never been an intention of the MAC to deal with issues affecting the frontline workers from its inception hence the so-called labour work stream was established later on. It is this committee that the Minister believes should be used as a platform for engagements with us, despite the commitment made at the meeting of the 8th April 2020 that the Minister will meet with us fortnightly and such never happened as we last met the Minister on the 8th April 2020. Moreover, the Minister is not sitting in the MAC as it has its own Chairperson, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, who was appointed by the Minister. Our major concern is where are we going to have an opportunity to engage the Minister as he is also not even sitting in labour work stream?  

As NEHAWU, we totally reject this as we do not believe it is a suitable and effective platform to engage on urgent matters that concerns the health and safety of our members and workers, as an important stakeholder we believe we should be able to engage the Minister and MEC’s directly and not to be reduced into a labour desk of any Ministry.

In meeting with the Minister on the 8th April 2020 we also agreed that provinces will be directed to establish and strengthen health and safety committees at all levels and more specifically in each workplace across the sector. In all institutions we visited such statutory committees have not been established and the fact-finding report submitted to the Minister reflects this reality. These committees should have been established in terms of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which are relevant platforms for engagements on issues related to risks management, procurement and distribution of PPEs, cleanliness of workplaces, etc. We therefore challenge the Minister to show us evidence of the existence of these functional OHS committees as per his instruction. This is a matter we expect the Minister will engage us on as it requires urgent corrective action considering the rising numbers of infected frontline workers. The lacklustre reaction by the Minister does not inspire confidence and will lead to more infections and fatalities.

The meeting of the 8th April 2020 resolved that engagements would take place regularly between the Minister and the national union to assess the outcomes of the meeting and to attend to any other issues affecting frontline workers. However, that has not been the case because all our attempts to meet with the Minister has been snubbed by him and his office. This is also the case with the Minister of Social Development whom we have requested numerous meetings with her in order to discuss issues related to the health and safety of our members under her department.

Minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu has on two occasions acknowledged the receipt of our request for meetings since the 13th February and 23rd April 2020, however, she has not made time to meet with us. We have watched in disbelief and disgust as she has been meeting with other stakeholders while ignoring our requests to meet. We have done everything in our power and we will no longer grovel to meet her. The ball is now in her court and she will have to reach out to us if she values the lives of our members and workers.

We want to reiterate our position that NEHAWU shall not allow itself to be reduced into a labour desk of any department as we can no longer continue to fight for our recognition at this age and stage of our democracy particularly under the government led by the African National Congress [ANC]. As an important stakeholder and a representative of workers we believe we should be treated with more respect and the dignity we deserve. The issues raised by our fact-finding mission report deserve to be treated with a high sense of urgency and commitment and anything less is just a smack on the face of workers who wake up on a daily basis to protect the nation against the coronavirus and also to provide healthcare to the masses of our people.

At this point, we want to send categorically a clear message to all Ministers and government officials of the current administration that this union of Bheki Mkhize and Yure Mdyogolo shall never chase them anymore for meetings as the ball is now in their court rather it will rather spend more time chasing, listening and resolving challenges confronting its members and workers in general in any way it deems fit.

Lastly, we want to humbly advice the Minister of Health and the department to relook their attitude towards the health and safety of workers before it’s too late, While calling on the Minister to start considering to give a mandate to the departmental negotiators at the bargaining council to re-open negotiations on the risk allowance as part of recognising and appreciating the good work and the life sacrifices demonstrated by frontline workers as an incentive to encourage workers do more until the fight against COVID-19 is won.

We strongly believe that if the Minister and the department care enough about workers this would be the right time and opportunity to prove their claim. The national union continues to have an open door policy and remain willing to engage any Minister or department that seeks to protect workers and ensure that they have decent working conditions and their lives are saved for better quality service to our nation.

Issued by NEHAWU Secretariat Zola Saphetha (General Secretary) at 082 558 5968; December Mavuso (Deputy General Secretary) at 082 558 5969; Khaya Xaba (NEHAWU National Spokesperson) at 082 455 2500 or email: