Debate rages over healthcare workers' right to strike

A nurse wearing a face mask walks out of the mens TB ward in Church of Scotland Hospital Msinga.
A nurse wearing a face mask walks out of the mens TB ward in Church of Scotland Hospital Msinga.
Image: Jackie Clausen. © Sunday Times.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) hosted a dialogue in Johannesburg on Thursday on the balance between the right to access of healthcare and the right of healthcare providers such as nurses to protest.

Mark Heywood‚ executive director of Section27‚ submitted that protest actions by healthcare providers often have long-term ramifications.

“When people don’t have a health service‚ they are incapacitated in a whole number of ways. To deny anyone access to healthcare services is unlawful. Whatever the course‚ it’s unlawful and it’s a violation of rights‚” he said.

“Even if unintentional‚ some of the protest actions and strikes have denied access to healthcare services.

“The question is: how do we protest in a way that doesn’t lead to loss of life?”

Heywood said corruption‚ mismanagement and underfunding of chronic treatments are key drivers of the decline in healthcare provision‚ and that beyond these systematic problems‚ workers should ensure that the expression of their grievances does not come at the expense of healthcare users.

The dialogue was held to work out the true impact that strikes have on healthcare. It follows lengthy labour action by healthcare providers in Mafikeng‚ North West‚ and at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg.

Violent protests calling for the resignation of former North West premier Supra Mahumapelo resulted in a collapse of healthcare in the province. Hospital staff were barred from accessing patients and performing their duties. Lives were reportedly lost as a consequence.

In May‚ healthcare providers at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital went on strike over unpaid bonuses. They blockaded gates to the hospitals and scattered rubbish on the main foyer.

Putting North West into perspective‚ Stats SA spokesman Ashwell Jenneker said North West was a province with a high rate of dissatisfaction towards public healthcare. He added that factors such as where people live‚ the state of their environment‚ genetics‚ income and education level all have a considerable impact on health.

“Do we have to wait for people to embark on a strike when the health services are already on the verge of collapse?” asked Cassim Lekgoathi‚ provincial secretary of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa).

“The lack of education‚ severe shortage of staff and lack of resources have seriously impacted on the services they render.”

Lekgoathi said when government makes an agreement with employees but does not fulfil it‚ it is provoking workers. “It is worrisome that agreements are made and not implemented‚" he said. "That’s provocation.”

KZN Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo said it was not a correct to say that one is providing an essential service and therefore cannot go on strike. He said as government they ought to not place workers in unfavourable working conditions that could lead to a revolt.

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