Hillbrow Hospital’s damage control

Frans de Klerk takes one telephone call, puts another on hold and speaks urgently into a walkie-talkie. “Sure you can come up and see me,” he says to the caller, “if you can get through.”

He means through the hundreds of toyi-toying nurses, cleaners and clerks who clog the entrance his office in the administration block of the Hillbrow Hospital. Most of the workforce is on strike and the hospital has been turned upside-down for De Klerk, its head of security. Also affected are hospital administrators, patients, doctors mid-workers who have defied the strike
call.

It’s midday, and out-patients wait in a queue that grows longer and moves at snails pace. Two or three staffers deal with agitated patients who demand their attention. Most of the cubicles usually manned by at least 20 clerks stand
empty.

“I’m suffering. I’m here from seven (this morning). It’s difficult, the government must just give them the money because now we’re going to die,” says Annie Kau, a patient who says she has asthma, high blood pressure and an ulcer.

Another woman complains that she has to get back to work. “I was in a queue, I was at the window — now I’m back in the queue,” she says before moving quickly into the next seat as the long line inches forward.

A matron in the casualty section remains stoic. “A few of us remain and a few go out,” she says, explaining the remarkable skeleton staff system, agreed with trade unions, which enabled the hospital to keep operating. This damage-control agreement appears to have worked at Hillbrow Hospital.

Apart from the queues of patients and the sense of disarray — the floors haven’t been swept and many laundry bags litter the awards — things are running relatively smoothly. Patients are getting their lunches and there have been no strike-related emergencies. Outside, workers wait for news from their delegation which is negotiating with hospital administrators.

Some toyi-toyi, others loll on the grass under the palm trees, oblivious to the official notices pasted on all the hospital doors warning that the strike is
illegal and that workers face dismissal if they fail to report for work by lunchtime file next day.

“The patients are suffering. The TPA must give us the R500,” says a nurse at the hospital. She is referring to the spark for countrywide disputes in state hospitals: the bonus paid by the Transvaal Provincial Administration to some Baragwanath
Hospital workers at the end of last year, and last week extended to all workers at Bara.

“Of course we are worried about our patients. But we do the very same job — if they give them (the Bara workers) the R500, they divide us and
make us fight.”

The patients are the major concern or Jan Bischoff, Hillbrow Hospital’s labour relations officer: “A person coming out of an operation needs the help of nurses and doctors. They may need transfusions and they must be looked after. “The stress is building up in us,” he says, listening to a message on his walkie-talkie. A security guard’s crackling voice comes over the air: “Hulle is op pad na die grasperk toe. (The strikers are moving to the lawn.)”

Bischoff’s task is to make contingency plans: all hospital staff must be available for the most menial of tasks, from seeing that patients are fed to ensuring that cleaning is done and that the “hundreds and thousands” of pieces of laundry are washed. He may have to employ voluntary
workers who queue outside the hospital after hearing of the strike.

“But we had a problem with voluntary workers (during the last strike). They work for one day and disappear,” he says. If the strike continues, he may have to call in the family members of patients to assist, while doctors will discharge as many patients as possible and group the seriously ill patients together to make it easier to treat them.

“It’s a madhouse here,” says Bischoff. A no-nonsense cardboard sign at the entrance to the hospital answers him. It says: “R500 now.”

The R500 pay crisis is contagious
Like falling dominoes, hospital strikes that began in the Transvaal spread through the country this week. Disputes and industrial action broke out in Port Elizabeth, Durban, Uitenhage, Gorge, Lebowa and Gazankulu, while the disputes continued to simmer in the Transvaal. As word spread of the R500 bonus paid to Baragwanath Hospital workers, others downed tools to demand the same bonus.

Other strikes involving wage disputes appeared to have given added impetus by the bonus-related disputes. Six Lebowa hospitals stood empty this week, while workers in Port Elizabeth rampaged through state hospitals, in some cases staging sit-ins and allegedly disrupting emergency services.

At Port Elizabeth’s Livingstone Hospital, authorities said nurses had been forcibly removed. The Transvaal Provincial Administration (TPA) said patients were streaming to hospitals in the northern Transvaal because of strikes in Lebowa and Gazankulu: “The Pietersburg Hospital is now over-full and an appeal is once again made to the public to make use of private clinics and hospitals”.

  • Trade unions and the TPA are expected to appoint an arbitrator today who will be charged with deciding whether the bonuses paid out should be returned. Transitional Executive Council representative Dries van Heerden said he expected two commissioners who will preside over a TEC investigation into labour relations in Transvaal hospitals to be appointed next week.

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