Ambulance services grind to a halt in Eastern Cape districts as paramedics down tools
The South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO) in Fort Beaufort is calling for Eastern Cape Health MEC Nomakhosazana Meth and Premier Oscar Mabuyane to intervene and end an ongoing work stoppage by ambulance workers. More than 200 paramedics and other emergency medical staff, who are meant to serve the Amathole District as well as the Raymond Mhlaba Local and Buffalo City municipalities, have been reporting for duty but have not worked for two months.
They are demanding better working conditions and adequate equipment.
In May, the Health Department obtained a court order to end the unprotected strike but most workers still refused to work.
The department then took the National Education Health and Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU) to the Labour Court in Gqeberha. But judgment was reserved and the work stoppage is continuing.
Regional Nehawu coordinator Mzamane Mgwantashe, a paramedic based at Fort Beaufort Hospital, said, "We feel the pain of our communities but we can't gamble with people's lives in ambulances not conducive to transporting patients. Should anything happen to the patient, our members would be held accountable." Mgwantashe added workers were still receiving their monthly salaries.
Another paramedic, who has been on the job for six years, told GroundUp, “The service we offer to the public is very poor. There are no machines to check diabetes and high blood pressure. Our radios don't function because we work in rural areas where there are network problems. We use our [personal] cellphones to respond to the calls and to communicate with our control room.”
Workers also accused the department of installing equipment in ambulances to get operating licences and then removing it soon after approval is given.
SANCO's chairperson in Ward 19, Zwelithini Mpembeni, said the organisation empathised with communities currently without ambulance services but added the vehicles were in any case not adequately equipped to deal with most emergency cases. Mpembeni added they had requested an urgent meeting with Meth and Mabuyane to end the strike.
Health department spokesperson Mkhululi Ndamase said talks with union representatives had deadlocked. "The department then approached the Labour Court and was granted an interim interdict. However, the striking workers have disregarded the interdict. They go to work but are not responding to calls that put people’s lives in danger."
Ndamase added the strike was having a severe impact, particularly on poor communities. "The poor rely on us for their health needs. We condemn the ongoing unprotected strike in the strongest words possible. The action by employees in Amahlathi, Raymond Mhlaba and Qonce is illegal and goes against their code of ethics as medical professionals."
He said the department would be using private ambulance services to respond to life-threatening calls in affected communities.