An illegal strike by provincial emergency medical services employees has resulted in several areas in the Eastern Cape being left without state-owned ambulance services.
Over 600 emergency and rescue services employees in the provincial health department downed their tools on Monday following an alleged non- payment of overtime, performance management and development system (PMDS) bonuses and salaries.
According to the provincial health department the strikes started at the Mthatha Hospital and then moved to King William's Town. However, on Tuesday strikes were reportedly active in Stutterheim, Alice, Butterworth, Fort Beaufort, Peddie, Adelaide, Fort Beaufort, East London, Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, Queenstown and Mount Ayliff.
Police were called in to negotiate with the strikers in Vincent in East London during the initial strike on Monday.
"We are not going to force the department to pay the workers just because they are now striking. They need to submit the necessary documentation to support their claims or else they will never get anything from the department," said provincial health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo. The department, which is working with the provincial treasury, encouraged striking employees to present documentation in order to qualify for any claims.
However, the department said earlier that the claims, totalling R191-million which the provincial treasury had agreed to pay, will be processed and paid to those who declared in March next year. If the claims exceed the amount, the department has agreed to request more funds.
The strikers are only trying to force the department to make irregular payments, says Kupelo. He admitted that in 2009 the department failed dismally when it made an irregular payment of R387-million for backlogs in what was meant to be R29-million. And this might have left a dent in its future budgets. He said by stopping irregular payments, they are eliminating the criminal element.
In response, the South African Emergency Personnel's Union (SAEPU) says a large number of the required documents had been lodged with the provincial department. "It has been so many years, why is the department only asking for the documents now? It should have already came up with a solution already" said SAEPU president Mpho Mpogeng. The department owes backlogs dating from 2006 and that amount has not been included in the budget since then, says Mpogeng.
"The control centres are not operating now; it is not safe for anyone who travels through the province because there will hardly be urgent medical service available on the roads," he said.
However the provincial department announced on Monday that it had approached private EMS companies to assist during the strikes. "The department will not be making any losses by hiring the private ambulances because they will be paid from the emergency services budget and that will be compensated by the money that the employees will lose out on during the strike because we say 'no work no pay'," said Kupelo.
Meanwhile Mpogeng, who travelled to East London from Limpopo to join the strikers, said hiring private companies will only spark the fury of the employees. He said, "Like the Marikana massacre, people might see the burning of ambulances and incitement of violence because the employer is not paying attention to the striking employees."
We have submitted a request to the provincial legislature to have a legal strike on Friday. "The workers realised that unions were not fruitful, so they embarked on their own strike. But even though the strike is illegal, we have to be here to support and guide them.
"We have been approaching the ministry of health but it has been useless, the president's office is useless. We need another department, not the department of health," said Mpogeng.