'Thrown to the dogs' - soon to be discarded Covid-19 health workers in E Cape demand permanent jobs

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(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
  • The Eastern Cape health department sent out letters to Covid-19 contract workers, advising them that their services would no longer be needed after 31 March.
  • The workers say they are being thrown to the dogs now that the infection rate is down.
  • The Eastern Cape has the lowest number of active Covid-19 cases in the country, at just over 250, with a 94% recovery rate.

Thousands of Eastern Cape Covid-19 health workers whose contracts end on 31 March - after having been on the frontlines since the beginning of the pandemic - say they are being "thrown to the dogs" now that the infection rate is down.

The group, calling themselves United Covid-19 Workers, are demanding the Eastern Cape government give them permanent jobs.

The Eastern Cape has the lowest number of active Covid-19 cases in the country, at just over 250, with a 94% recovery rate.

The workers have given the Eastern Cape government until 16 March to hire them permanently - they have threatened to stage a sleep-in outside Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane's office until their demands are met.

The contract workers were employed by the Eastern Cape health department at the beginning of the pandemic to help in the fight against Covid-19 at different hospitals.

Last month, acting head of Eastern Cape health, Dr Sibongile Zungu, sent out a directive to all health district bosses to inform them that all contract workers would no longer be needed by the end of March.

The decision was met with outrage, with the DA in the Eastern Cape calling the move not only short-sighted, but dangerous.  

Among those whose jobs are on the line is the 331 dedicated team at the Volkswagen-sponsored multi-million-rand Dr Elizabeth Mamisa Chabula-Nxiweni Field Hospital in Gqeberha.

The hospital was set to close its doors at the end of March.

DA MPL Jane Cowley previously promised to engage Mabuyane to ensure that contracts were extended for as long as the province continued to deal with the pandemic.

The protesting group said while the health department was understaffed, "we as Covid-19 contract workers have worked at the frontline, protecting patients and staff with comorbidities. Real cost accounting will show our value. Instead, we are thrown to the dogs with the excuse of efficiencies and zero based budgeting. Employ us now!"

The group said:

We are giving the EC government until 16 March 2021 to extend our contracts. We will sleep at the offices of the premier if we have to, but we won't leave until we have received a circular that our contracts have been renewed.

Eastern Cape government spokesperson Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha said: "We can confirm that a group of nurses arrived at the State House requesting to meet with the premier about their complaints caused by the fact that their temporary employment for Covid-19 duties was not going to be extended by the department of health.

"The reason for this is that the department used a grant to employ these nurses to perform Covid-19 related work.

"We communicated this employment as a temporary employment last year specific to Covid-19 intervention.

"The current situation is inspired by the fact that the department is not in a financial position to carry this financial responsibility.

"The provincial government has been assisting the [national] Department of Health to meet some of its financial responsibilities. 

We can confirm that the premier and the new Health MEC will meet with the nurses soon. Critical to this matter is that the provincial government is applying its mind on this matter given the fact that we still have Covid-19 in the province.

"Any consideration will be done within this context clearly defined in the recruitment policies of government. We can confirm that government does not have a policy to absorb people into its employment. Every person recruited by government is employed according to the human resource policies of government. These include advertising vacant posts, interviewing candidates for those posts prior to any person being appointed."

Asked if Treasury could carry the costs of hiring the nurses, Eastern Cape finance department spokesperson, Mpumelelo Godongwana, said: "As things stand, our fiscus is constrained as the province is spending more than what it receives, which poses a threat to the liquidity of our budget. The province has lost R7 billion in 2021 and R28 billion over the MTEF in budget cuts. R22 billion of that is taken from compensation of employees.

"65% of the province's budget goes to compensation of employees. The department of health is a big contributor to that high budget percentage that goes compensation of employees.

"What this means is that if we don't do anything about this situation, the province will be inviting Section 100. So all the measures that we presented during the budget speech are necessary, if we are to salvage the province. I must hasten to add that our mechanisms on [the] management of [the] wage bill, does not mean people who are on the system will lose jobs; it is partly to make sure that the appointments we make are aligned to service delivery, to strengthen the capacity of government to achieve service delivery imperatives," added Godongwana. 

Finance MEC Mlungisi Mvoko announced during his budget speech on Wednesday in Bhisho that he aims to reduce the province's salary bill by R22 billion before the end of the 2023/2024 financial year.   

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