Community healthcare workers march for a minimum wage of R12,500

In November 2020 the Community Careworkers in the Western Cape marched a minimum wage of R12,500. Archive photo by Lilita Gcwabe

As the outcry by thousands of care workers whose bodies continue to be on the frontline against covid-19 gets louder around the country, their conditions of work remain unchanged.

Community healthcare workers (CHWs) marched to the Western Cape Health Department demanding an end to their exploitation as they are excluded from the protection benefits of permanent staff, continue to work with improper personal protective equipment (PPE) and do not receive a danger allowance.

The National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (NUPSAW), affiliated to the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), led the CHWs protest march to the WC provincial legislature to hand over their list of demands to Health MEC, Dr. Nomafrench Mbombo.

Starting from the 23rd of November to the 26th, a week-long series of events have been organised to pressure the WC government to comply with the Public Health and Social Development Sectoral Bargaining Council resolution 1 of 2018 (PHSDSBC). This agreement, signed by the Department of Health and representatives of trade unions, entailed the standardisation of a stipend for CHWs.

NUPSAW believes that the continued employment of CHWs by NGOs/NPOs leaves many workers insecure in their daily lives because of the short-term nature of the contracts they are employed under.

Cynthia Tikwayo, a community healthcare worker, said that when she tried to go and apply for a loan last month, she was declined because they said her organisation no longer exists. “I’m still getting payed by this so-called organisation which the Department says I’m employed under, but it no longer exists. My payslips have the “City of Cape Town” written on them but it’s this very city that doesn’t want to absorb me as a part of the permanent staff.”

Tikwayo believes that NGOs are used as a guise to milk the government for someone’s personal gain: “Why aren’t we getting any answers? What’s different about the WC? Why can’t we be like Gauteng? [where CHWs have been employed permanently]” she demanded to know.

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The workers, many of whom are sole breadwinners, say they cannot negotiate their livelihood with the health department any longer and that they don’t want to continue saving lives at the expense of their own.

Shiela Ngqula from Nyanga (42) has been a care worker for three years after being unemployed for a more than five years. “It’s painful because the R3,500 is just not enough for the amount of work that we do. We are robbed, harassed and bitten by stray dogs on the way with no compensation. We travel using our own money and still have families to feed; we don’t get any paid leave and are at risk of contracting the illnesses that we help other people to treat,” she said.

Ngqula says she was lucky not to contract the virus on duty but she’s afraid that if she does, her children will be left with nothing: “What makes the work we do different from nurses? If I die, my family gets condolences and a nurse’s family gets compensated, but we perform the same duties,” she said.

As essential and frontline workers under covid-19, the CHWs say they are not provided with adequate personal protective equipment.

Supported by the South African Care Workers Forum (SACWF), the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), and the Forum for Service Delivery (F4SD), over 100 careworkers gathered outside the provincial legislature to hand over the memorandum.

“When our communities in Khayelitsha were filled with people infected with the coronavirus and other illnesses, it was the careworkers who still delivered pills and checked on their patients. It was them who risked their lives traveling to patients in the township. They are the nurses doing the groundwork” said Masibulele Zitha, convener of F4SD. Zitha promised long-term support for CHWs in their struggle. “If the government still doesn’t make a move, we will shut down all the clinics in Khayelitsha, we will walk with you until Nomafrench does something,” she said.

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The workers booed health department spokesperson, Douglas Newman-Valentine, when he tried to receive the memorandum explaining that the MEC was not available. “The MEC acknowledges your presence today and apologises for not being here. She is currently performing her parliamentary duties and is currently not here to be able to receive it. She has asked me to come on her behalf,” said Valentine. The crowd angrily chanted “Mbombo must come!” in response, refusing to accept what they perceived as being undermined by her absence.

“The minister’s absence is a reflection of how much she doesn’t take the issues of healthcare workers seriously because as we all know, it is this government’s stance that you are not their employees irrespective of you carrying out the functions that are the responsibility of the government,” said NUPSAW’s legal officer, Zamuxolo Sonjica to the crowd.

After threatening to sleep outside the health department’s office and chanting for Mbombo to face them, the workers reluctantly handed over the memorandum to Valentine and promised to proceed with further action, should they not receive a response by the 7th of December 2020.

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