COSATU statement on the campaign to defend and protect workers against the deadly COVID-19 virus

The Congress of South African Trade Unions is calling on all workers and South Africans to support the mobilisation efforts and the campaign to demand better protection of frontline workers that are being ravaged by the COVID-19 virus. NEHAWU and our unions in the health sector are busy mobilising to fight against the uncaring attitude of government. This campaign will kick-start with  three days of action starting tomorrow.  

The Federation salutes the brave men and women who are courageously leading the battle against the deadly Corona Virus. Their dedication and selflessness is saving millions of lives daily and they do this without the necessary protective and medical equipment. We send our sympathies to the families of all workers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

We urge all South Africans to rally behind this campaign against government’s failure to comply with the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). If we do not support these frontline workers, we risk a collapse of the entire healthcare system. Healthcare is not about medicine alone, but it is about social solidarity, it is about showing that everyone matters.

The overall objective of this campaign is to protect workers but also to lay a foundation for the realisation of the right to decent health care for all as stated in Section 27 of the Constitution that: “Everyone has a right to have access to health care services”. At the moment there are shocking inequalities and problems in our health system.

As South Africa navigates alert level two, one thing is for sure; workers will only be safe under the leadership of a government that appreciates and respects workers fundamental rights and worker’s Constitutional right to life. We cannot afford to have government as an employer that evades the Labour Relations Act.

The Covid-19 virus has thrived in workplaces that generally limit the rights of workers as workers are disempowered to exercise any labour rights for fear of victimization and abuse by the employers. Noncompliance and the abuse of workers’ rights is the biggest threat to the containment of the Covid-19 virus in the workplace. Compliance with the various directives from government in response to the virus is not an option. It is a life and death issue and non-negotiable. We reiterate our call for workers to refuse to work under dangerous conditions.

The Inspectorate on Occupational Health and Safety under the Department of Employment and Labour (DEL) claims that currently about 60% of public health workplaces are compliant with the health and safety legislation and regulations. 

This 40%non- compliance rate is scandalous and reflects badly on government. The combination of decades of deliberate neglect through Neoliberal policies caused the public health system to fall behind in meeting its constitutional mandate. Our public health system is presently crisis-ridden and vulnerable in the face of the COVID-19 because previous policy choices.

There are many challenges in the public health system such as the poor state of the infrastructure, management failure, patients subjected to long queues, dirty laundry, shortage of staff, etc.

There are disparities in the distribution of human resources in health between the public and private sectors despite the fact that the majority of health workers are trained by the state. The public health sector faces challenges of human resources development and the South African Health care system is nurse-centred but there is lack of focused, proper coordinated and managed nursing services and resources in the country

Currently, there are only 10% of nurses who are under 30 years of age and nursing vacancies are 40% unfilled in the public healthcare system on which the overwhelming majority of our people depend.There are chronic vacancies in critical clinical occupations. Thus, the staff establishment is reduced to 32 doctors per 100 000 people and 144 professional nurses per 100 000 people.

Lack of investment in public health infrastructure caused the population growth rate to outpace the expansion of public healthcare capacity. Thus, we have a ratio of only 18 hospital beds per 10 000 people. In addition, in some provinces there are ongoing challenges of irregular supply of medicines, lack of some critical medical devises, no maintenance and largely dilapidated infrastructure.

The lack of occupational hygiene endangers the wellbeing of the healthcare workers and patients. There are increasing incidents of nosocomial transmissions (i.e. contraction of diseases from the hospital) – between 2009 and 2015 growing by 14% per year and by March 2019 government was faced with R104.5 billion in contingent liabilities

South Africa spends a big proportion of its national income on health by international comparison, but the bulk of these resources are lost to corruption, consumed by the for-profit private sector, and benefit a minority of the population.

As a federation, we emerged from our 13th National Congress appreciating that we need to reassert our historical role and mantle as a leading agent of transformation in healthcare sector. This is why the federation is happy that our unions are grounded on dealing with workplace challenges.

 The under-funded and overworked public sector must be strengthened to care for the majority of our citizens especially those who cannot afford to pay for quality health services. We need to fight against government austerity measures and the government corruption that is  leaving many of our frontline workers exposed to this deadly virus.

For this to happen, we need to stand up as South Africans and support the Three Days Action that starts tomorrow at Chris Hani Baragwanath in Gauteng. The details of the three-day action are as follows:

01 September           :    Prayer Services in memory of front-line workers @ targeted hospitals (National event at Chris Hani Baragwaneth in Gauteng.

02 September           :    Motorcades (finalizing routes)

03 September           :     Demonstrations @ Premiers Offices, Cape Town @ Parliament and Gauteng in Pretoria Union Building.


Issued by COSATU
Sizwe Pamla (Cosatu National Spokesperson)

Tel: 011 339 4911
Fax: 011 339 5080
Cell: 060 975 6794