Organised labour in the health sector in KwaZulu-Natal has worked around the clock this week to prevent premature protest against a national government directive to the province to rescind salary increases awarded in 2001 to more than 49 000 Department of Health employees with effect from July 1 1999.
Although the salaries — awarded in the face of wild-cat strikes and closure of several hospitals — were ratified by a provincial cabinet committee, Public Service and Administration Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi has instructed KwaZulu-Natal Premier Lionel Mtshali to ensure that the Department of Health rescinds the salary increases and reassesses all employees’ salary positions in terms of public service regulations.
Concerned that public services regulations hadÂ been flouted in awarding merit increases to “almost all employees of the department”, Fraser-Moleketi said this had set a dangerous precedent in the province and public service countrywide.
“It is almost certain that employees in other departments would demand that their salary positions be increased in a similar way,” said Fraser-Moleketi, adding that had the health department officials consulted her ministry before awarding the increases during the crisis, the necessary salary adjustments could have been dealt with more appropriately.
Though Fraser-Moleketi issued her instruction in November last year, it was only on Tuesday last week that organised labour was informed of the directive from her department.
“We were informed that the department would not make a decision pending the outcome of consultation with organised labour on how to resolve the situation,” said the president of the Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union of South Africa, Gavin Moultrie. “Then we get a letter from Ronald Green-Thompson [KwaZulu-Natal Superintendent General of Health] stating that his department is implementing the directive to rescind the salaries.”
“We are sitting on a powder keg,” said Moultrie earlier in the week. “Even as we speak, ambulance personnel all over the province are threatening to walk out.”
For its part, the health department declined to comment or provide any facts or information for public dissemination.
Awaiting the outcome of consultations between health department officials and the public services ministry, spokespersons for the unions said they were reserving their rights to contest the scrapping of the merit increases.
“We believe that the minister [KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Zweli Mkhize] applied his mind in making a competent decision in order to resolve a crisis in the Department of Health, which included 15 000 grievances and a series of wild-cat strikes. We will clearly protest the instruction to overturn the decision and fight for the salary increases to be retained,” said Moultrie, adding that the decision had effectively averted the collapse of KwaZulu-Natal’s health system.
The National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) said the directive from public services was the employers’ problem.
“On this issue, the union has reached a common understanding with the health department, which is now seeking clarity on the practical application of the directive and other matters, including what categories of staff are going to be affected,” said Nehawu chairperson Xolisa Londa. “Until then, we reserve our right to protect our members’ interests,” said Londa.