Seventeen employees of the Fort Napier mortuary in Pietermaritzburg were arrested on Monday, GroundUp reports.
The arrested workers have been on a go-slow since November. Workers have been demanding better working conditions, wage increases and backpay.
Last week, the Department of Health issued an ultimatum to workers to return to work or face arrest. All the workers were arrested at the morgue in Fort Napier on Monday afternoon.
Department of Health spokesperson Ncumisa Mafunda confirmed the arrests of the forensic pathology staff (although SAPS told GroundUp that 16, not 17, people had been arrested). She said this was the enforcement of an order of contempt of court that was secured by the department against the staff members.
"The arrest comes after numerous failed attempts to persuade the workers to abandon the go-slow which they embarked upon in November," Mafunda said.
"The department first issued an ultimatum, which was followed by an interim order granted by the court interdicting the workers from participating in an illegal strike. When the workers failed to abide by the judgment, the department filed another application against the workers for being in contempt of court."
She said all of this happened simultaneously with the rollout of contingency plans to keep the services running amid challenging circumstances that were taking a toll on many grieving families. She said, after the the workers were found in contempt of court, the department gave them "a last opportunity" to go back to work at an "optimum level". She said this was also ignored.
All the workers were taken to Plessislaer police station in Edendale. When GroundUp arrived at the police station, the workers were in a truck at the back of the police station, close to the cells. They were all in their work colours: Navy T-shirts and pants.
"They arrested us from our work place," said a worker who was in a police truck. He said that the police had confiscated equipment from the morgue last week, and that this made it impossible to work.
"This is intimidation from the department," the man said. "They failed to attend to our issues and now they arrest us. You should have seen the number of police who came to arrest us. It was like they were arresting criminals… We are only fighting for our rights as workers," he said.
Nehawu provincial secretary Phakama Ndunakazi said: "The department made promises to the workers. It failed to honour those promises. On Friday, I was with the workers in Fort Napier. I spent almost three hours with them. We discussed what is expected of them from that court interdict. Some of those expectations were for the workers to be at work. They were at work, but they could not perform their duties. All their working infrastructure had been taken away.
"They will be appearing in Durban Labour court on Tuesday. We will be there supporting them until the end," said Ndunakazi.