Community care workers still locked out of permanent jobs

In August last the Eastern Cape community health workers demonstrated outside the Health Department offices in Bisho demanding permanent positions. Archive Photo by Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik.

The Eastern Cape Health Department assured care workers they would be signing permanent contracts on the 1st of June. In the midst of a pandemic against which they are frontline combatants, care workers in the Eastern Cape are still temporary workers.

Nomathamsanqa Mbondwana from East London Mdantsane NU1 has been a community care worker since 1997. The 65-year-old started as a volunteer earning nothing. Years later, she was given a stipend of R350 a month. Because she loves helping people, she continued working in the hope that one day the Eastern Cape Health Department (ECHD) would hire her permanently. 

But 23 years later she’s not permanent. 

To make things worse, the department’s employee database kicked her out without any notice. As a result, she did not receive the R3,500 she earned in June.

Mbondwana was one of the Eastern Cape community care workers who marched outside the ECHD offices on Monday demanding to be employed on a permanent basis. Unlike other community care workers, Mbondwana wants to be paid for work she has already performed, including benefits like UIF and retirement.

She said the health department only gave her a letter of termination to take to the labour department which did not assist her. The labour department told her to bring a file which states what was deducted from her stipend.

“This is a clear indication that I’m going home empty handed because as far as I know, the UIF was only deducted this year March; for years nothing was deducted,” said Mbondwana

This was the third time these community care workers led by the United Eastern Cape Community Health Care Workers and other civil society organisations marched to the ECHD offices this year, demanding a meeting with MEC Sindiswa Gomba and head of department, Thobile Mbengashe.

When they marched to the department last month, police used rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse them

Since then, the community care workers said they have been trying to have a meeting with Gomba and Mbengashe but with no luck. They said they even tried to have a meeting with Eastern Cape premier, Oscar Mabuyane, but he was too busy to sit with them.

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Among others, they are demanding a standard PERSAL number with all benefits that are enjoyed by health workers.

They said the department undervalues them even though they are at the forefront of the fight against TB and HIV, and now against covid-19.

Their memorandum states that they are taking this action deliberately during women’s month to highlight the form of gendered violence the Eastern Cape Department of Health subjects them to as 99% of them are women, performing important work in especially working class communities. 

A specific problem included in the memorandum concerns security – care workers are being mugged on their way to work and sexual harassment by community members is frequent.

Mbondwana said in the 23 years she has worked as a care worker she has faced sickness without personal protective gear. “Not a single day did I miss work unless I’m very sick. I used to share the little stipend I received from the department with needy families,” said Mbondwana.

She said her not being paid has put her into a lot of debt.

“The stipend is very little and most of us ended up borrowing money from the loan sharks… I owe two loan sharks an amount of R5,000 because it increases every month I did not pay. Sometimes I wish I can just die. I have four people depending on me. The system just kicked me out with no warning,” said the sad Mbondwana.

Another care worker, Nophelo Sithathu, said a number of care workers are infected by covid-19 for lack of PPEs. “This means, if one can die due to covid-19 our children will get nothing. I’ve been here for more than 20 years and I refuse to go with empty hands,” she said.

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Community care worker leader, Thobeka Faltein, said the department promised them permanent contracts which they were supposed to sign on June 1.

“We do not know what happened to that agreement and we are demanding those permanent contracts. We are tired of empty promises. Community health workers [CHWs] are hard workers; they are the ones who check patients before they go to nurses or doctors so why are we not treated equally,” she said.

“We are not getting UIF, no pension funds, nothing, only signing contracts each year. Some CHWs have more than 15 years in the service, and for how long must we face this indignity? It is time now that the health department stop abusing us as CHWs and absorb all of us permanently. We have been marching and submitting grievances all these years and getting no answers from them,” she said. 

Unfortunately, the CHWs did not receive answers again on Monday. Health Department Chief Director of Labour Relations, Bongani Lose, told them that Mbengashe can only meet them on Tuesday.

When Elitsha left at 17:00 some of the care workers were still sitting outside the department offices. Faltein said the plan is sit outside the department until they see Mbengashe.

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