Nursing union threatens mass stayaway, health department warns it will be a criminal offence

Nurses in the isolation unit during the media briefing to discuss the first case of coronavirus (Covid-19) at Tygerberg Hospital in the Western Cape on March 11, 2020.
Nurses in the isolation unit during the media briefing to discuss the first case of coronavirus (Covid-19) at Tygerberg Hospital in the Western Cape on March 11, 2020.
Gallo Images/Misha Jordaan

A trade union representing about 15 000 nurses at public and private health facilities, is threatening a mass stayaway from 1 May if the government doesn't meet their long-standing demands.

The Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union (YNITU), an affiliate of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), says it feels neglected by the government, having raised issues of a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), expensive transport and "poverty-level" salaries.

However, Department of Health spokesperson Popo Maja says if the union calls for a stayaway, it will be "a criminal offence in line with the Disaster Management Act" which the police can look into.

The union became particularly disgruntled following President Cyril Ramaphosa's address to the nation on Tuesday night.

No financial relief

Ramaphosa announced a range of socio-economic relief measures for South Africa as a result of the Covid-19 epidemic but did not mention healthcare workers in his speech, the union said.

General secretary Rich Sicina, who is also a nurse, said they were hoping Ramaphosa would announce relief measures for nurses.

"One thing that made us angrier is when Ramaphosa addressed the issue of economic and social relief measures, he completely excluded those who are in the deep end… Many of us are from poverty backgrounds, we have families to take care of," Sicina said.

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In a statement on Wednesday, the union said they expected Ramaphosa to announce a six-month income tax break for frontline workers and nurses in particular, who are the "least paid among healthcare professionals" and who will not be getting salary increases this year.

"The least the government could do is give nurses an income tax break or Covid-19 danger allowance in these trying times since they are risking their lives by being in the deep end of the fight against this virus."

Maja said the South African Revenue Service dealt with tax issues.

"Financial relief is for those whose financial situation has been affected by the lockdown. Issues of tax are managed by SARS," Maja said,

Risky working conditions

Sicina said healthcare workers were made to work in dire conditions.

"At the moment I am on duty, and nurses are coming to my ward left, right and centre to say they have no PPE," Sicina said.

"We are even trying to control the mere surgical masks. We wear one surgical mask the whole day... We don't even have gowns."

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Sicina added that there was no proper training for nurses on how to wear PPE or the correct way to take it off.

Maja responded that PPE for health workers was a priority of the department.

"The department and the entire government is prioritising PPEs for health workers. Facilities with a dire need have been identified and shipment of PPEs sent."

Expensive transport

For many nurses, it is a "nightmare" to get to and from work, Sicina added.

This is because taxi drivers do not adhere to regulations and charge workers extra for transport, Sicina added, adding that passengers have to pay double.

"They haven't said anything for a long time and from where we are sitting, we are saying that we've been quiet for too long."

No motivation

Sicina said that because of these issues, nurses have lost the motivation to work.

"Nurses of South Africa want to defend community members and themselves against Covid-19, but it's extremely disappointing to find that with our authorities, our importance is only lip service.

"Sekufike lapho sikhathala khona, we have been neglected for too long. It should end now because if it doesn't, it means it will never end, because there will be no healthcare system without nurses. Nurses' lives matter and nurses are human too," the union said in the statement.

However, Maja said: "The Ministry of Health implores every health worker to contribute in the fight against this pandemic."

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