Care workers demand better working conditions

Earlier this year, community care workers in Khayelitsha marched to the health sub-district office demanding to work directly for the Department of Health. Archive Photo by Mzi Velapi

For the second time under the covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, community care workers in Khayelitsha protested for better conditions of work.

Exploitative working conditions and the failure by the Department of Health and government to recognise their role in the provision of public healthcare in South Africa remains a part of the loud outcry by community care workers. Represented by the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (NUPSAW), together with members of the Masincedane organisation, care workers gathered outside the Khayelitsha Hospital to submit a memorandum to the Khayelitsha Eastern Substructure demanding the improvement of their working conditions, across the province and the country.

“We are here on behalf of community health workers (CHWs) and we have also organised care worker groups in other provinces to demand the absorption of all CHWs on salary level 2 as an interim solution. We want a R2,000 covid-19 danger allowance, and proper PPE [personal protective equipment] in addition to many of the other needs they have as workers on the ground. We have been fighting with the Department of Health since 2012 to increase their salaries, recognise the workers by cutting out the middleman and better the conditions of these workers,” said provincial legal officer of NUPSAW, Zamuxolo Sonjica.

The “middleman” refers to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that serve as employers of CHWS and may deploy them to different areas and clinics very far from where they stay. “After the memorandum was signed, we were promised it would go to the MEC of Health and then it needs to go straight to the Department of Health which is in charge of working with these NGOs, that underpay CHWs,” said Sonjica.

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Care worker, Nobani Gagela, from the South African Christian Leadership Assembly (SACLA) said that it’s her second time picketing outside the Khayelitsha hospital since the beginning of the lockdown.

“We have been coming here to demand better working conditions. We still have to travel very far from home to get to the areas we work in with no transport; we arrive at patients’ homes and are unwelcomed. The routes that we have to take to patients’ homes are unsafe and unfamiliar; we easily get robbed on our way there,” Gagela said.

Since they are not provided with adequate personal protective equipment, the most they can do, according to Galela, is to maintain safe social distancing when interacting with patients. “We work in fear because sometimes we enter homes where sick people can’t afford to buy masks and we don’t even have the right equipment. We just do the work to put food on the table, otherwise, we are not safe.”

Earlier this year, community care workers marched to the Khayelitsha sub-district and handed over a memorandum demanding to be absorbed into the health department.

NUPSAW’s provincial chairperson, Cynthia Tikwayo, believes that when she tested positive for the coronavirus, it was because she did not have the proper PPE to protect herself from many of her patients who received covid-19 positive results after the screening and testing processes. “I started having shortness of breath and after testing, I had to stay off work for about a month. No one from work called to check where I was or how I was doing and when I returned, they acted like nothing happened,” she said.

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Tikwayo said that the income they earn as care workers is not enough for the amount of risk they face and the work they do. “The load that the NGOs and the substructure make us carry is too heavy and the work that they make us do does not amount to the little R3,600 that we earn. We are not happy at all. As someone who stays far from where I work, R500 of my salary goes to my transport alone and I still have to walk some of the distance. I have children who go to school and still have to eat; it is just not easy for us,” she said.

The Khayelitsha health sub-district office had not responded to questions from Elitsha by the time of publishing.

At the beginning July, the Gauteng MEC for Health, Bandile Masuku, announced that community care workers would be absorbed into the health department at the start of the following month. According to Karibu news, at the end of July, there were some districts that still had to be given direction on the signing of employment contracts under covid-19 regulations. Care workers were going to be converted to level 2 employees with R8,544.50 monthly earnings, medical aid, a housing allowance and pension.

Meanwhile a recent protest by care workers to the provincial health department in the Eastern Cape ended in a job offer.

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