Eastern Cape careworkers feel hopeful after meeting with the Department of Health.
For the past two days, care workers have protested outside the Eastern Cape Health Department offices demanding permanent positions. On Monday, about 100 care workers were demanding a meeting with Health MEC, Sindiswa Gomba, and superintendent-general, Thobile Mbengashe.
The protesters say they are undermined by the department though they are at the front in fighting HIV and AIDS, TB and now covid-19. Community care work is difficult and dangerous – working under bad conditions with inadequate personal protective gear, they risk being robbed, raped and contracting diseases.
The department does not, however, recognise their hard work and effort and the protesting care workers accuse the department of refusing to employ them permanently.
On Monday, care workers were told by the health department’s Chief Director of Labour Relations, Bongani Lose, to return on Tuesday because Mbengashe had other matters to attend to. Some of the care workers returned home, but those who came from as far as Port Elizabeth, Maclear and Ngcobo slept in Bisho.
On Tuesday Mbengashe finally had a meeting with the leaders which lasted for five hours but they failed to win the demand for permanent work. Mbengashe only assured them that he will ‘look into the matter’.
Care worker leader, Thobeka Faltein said as much as they are unhappy with the outcome of the meeting, there is a glimpse of light that they will get what they are hoping for.
“As we are all aware that this is the matter of the bargaining council, employer has told us that they cannot hire us permanently as yet but have promised to find ways to assist us in making sure that we achieve what we want. We told employer that we are aware that in Gauteng community health workers [CHWs] were given permanent contracts in June and we want that to be also done here,” said Faltein. She explained that the department plans to open posts internally that care workers will be able to apply for.
As disappointing as the outcome of their meeting with the superintendent-general was, Faltein welcome the few gains made. “What is nice about this agreement is that we are going to have a task team elected by us CHWs that is going to look into the processes of hiring people and that will give us an opportunity to make sure that only CHWs receive the job,” she said.
Even though most of the community care workers were not happy with the outcome, they all said it was better than nothing, but many fear the positions that will be created might require a Grade 12 which the majority of them do not have.
Care worker, Nomboniso Mali (54), said, “Some of us do not have Grade 12 and we are old. We cannot return to school now. Employer promised us permanent positions and we were supposed to sign new contracts on June 1 – that did not happen. By coming here was to force the employer to renew all our contracts to permanent… These permanent positions they’re talking about – we are not going to get them. It won’t be the first time the department issues inside permanent positions but we will find people from outside are applying.”
Care workers have been protesting outside the health department demanding permanent positions regularly. In the month of June, they handed over a memorandum of their grievances to Mbengashe. He was given two weeks to respond to the grievances but that never happened.
Again in July, care workers downed tools and staged another protest outside the department offices. Even after two days of protest, ending 17 July, they were not assisted. Elitsha reported about the two protests, where police dispersed the workers using rubber bullets and stun grenades.
Having endured so much for so little in return, some of the protesters were angry. A small heated argument erupted when the leaders delivered the report from the meeting. Some care workers said the leaders were not supposed to agree with Mbengashe on the the new positions.
Speaking to Elitsha on Wednesday, Mbengashe confirmed that there are 500 jobs which will be advertised internally that the care workers can apply for.
He said as the department, they understand the care workers’ grievances and feel their pain, but that their employment is a national matter. “Like I said to them, we can only try to do what we can; at the moment then when national decides we can hire them permanently we will do that,” said Mbengashe.
He said at the meeting, they agreed that the care workers must elect a task team with which the department will meet in two weeks’ time to discuss all their issues and also make sure that those who are going to apply for the new positions are the care workers.
Mbengashe said it is not true that care workers are not recognised. “We see their good work,” he said.