Workers and community picket against closure of children’s hospital

Picketers outside Sarah Fox Children's Hospital demanding the reinstatement of government funding and new hospital management. Photo by Mzi Velapi

A hospital for children is facing imminent closure after withdrawal of funding by the Department of Health.

A group of workers and community members picketed outside of Sarah Fox Children’s Convalescent Hospital in Kewtown in Athlone. This follows the withdrawal of funds by the Western Cape Department of Health to the hospital after they picked up, according to the statement, “challenges with the corporate governance at the facility”. The statement further says that “remedial actions” were put in place to address the challenges but “they could not be resolved completely”. The provincial Department of Health funds 90 percent of the hospital’s operational costs and now about 70 nurses and staff are facing the loss of their jobs.

The picketers were demanding that government funding be reinstated and that new management at the hospital be installed. The only convalescent children’s hospital in the Western Cape with children being referred to it by other hospitals or institutions has been operating for more than 50 years.

Joy Pietersen, a care-worker said that she feels that what is happening to them is unfair as the problem was with the board of management that did not comply with the requirements of the provincial Department of Health. “They told us that there is nothing wrong with the quality of work that we do but it is a mismanagement issue,” said Pietersen who has been working at the hospital for 10 years.

“We have been told that we will be moved to other places but we will still need to apply for those jobs. We are going to sit without jobs,” lamented Deidre Petro, an enrolled nursing assistant at the hospital.

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Another enrolled nursing assistant who has been working at the hospital for 39 years, Salome Phillips, told Elitsha that she is being pressurised to retire. ” I’m not ready to retire yet, why must I go now. They gave me papers to sign but I have refused,” said the 60-year-old. This is not the first time the hospital is facing closure. “The last time it happened we forfeited salary increases because we wanted to keep our jobs and now we are faced with this situation,” she said.

Ntombentsha Pienaar, a care-worker at the hospital, said that the situation is contributing to her ill health. “This is making me sick. I’m the breadwinner and who is to take me at my age?” complained the 59-year-old who has been working at the hospital for 18 years.

The National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers says it is the majority union at the hospital. The provincial organiser for the union, Omar Parker, said that they are engaging the provincial and national Departments of Health to intervene. “It is unacceptable that this place must close because it is the most accessible for this community and those around it. The children will be disrupted,” he said.

Parker puts the blame on the board of the hospital and the Department of Health. “This is a management failure and there has been a repeated problem of maladministration and the department has allowed it to happen. It is not the responsibility of the NGOs to provide healthcare but that of the department. They should have intervened and employed the workers directly,” he said.

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“When the board knew that there were problems they continued employing more people. They employed an HR person, a stock controller and a ward clerk even though they knew about the problems. A board chairperson who is a chartered accountant resigned and this should have sent signals to the department given the information that they knew about the hospital,” he said.

“We want the government to re-instate the funding of the hospital and that a legitimate body that has the support of the community takes over the facility,” concluded Parker.

At the picket Elitsha met Athlone High learners who are volunteers at the hospital. Sixteen-year-old Sandiswa Klaas said that it is unfair that the place is facing closure as the children will be the most affected. “They are being unfair; its wrong what will happen to the children and the workers are going to lose jobs,” she said.

The provincial Department of Health said that they have made “concerted efforts to avoid job losses by providing the workers with new job opportunities at other NPOs” and that they have “prioritised the well-being of our patients through concluding and awarding new contracts to ensure our patients receive continued care.”


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