National laboratory staff continue strike despite court interdict

26 August 2020 - 13:37
By Aron Hyman
NHLS staff continued their strike despite a Labour Court interdict declaring it unlawful.
Image: Thinkstock NHLS staff continued their strike despite a Labour Court interdict declaring it unlawful.

National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) staff have continued their strike despite a labour court interdict declaring it unlawful.

NHLS spokesperson Mzi Gcukumana said the strike was “sporadic in different locations”. Contingency plans are in place to mitigate the effect on operations.

The NHLS warned on Tuesday that if the strike by the National Education, Health, and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) continued this week it would disrupt Covid-19 testing across the country.

Nehawu is protesting against the salaries of public servants not being increased and lapses in the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers.

“If the strike is not averted, South Africans will not know the number of Covid-19 infections in the country, which could negatively affect the government’s efforts to contain the spread of the pandemic,” said Gcukumana.

“The government will have limited or no information regarding where the relevant hotspots for Covid-19 are; private laboratories would not be able to report their Covid-19 infections as required by the relevant disaster management regulations,” he said. In addition, he said, many people may not be able to get tested for Covid-19.

He said there had been incidents of unruly behaviour and conduct by striking staff.

“The NHLS continues to monitor the situation and will not hesitate to take appropriate action where necessary,” said Gcukumana. “In anticipation of the strike, the NHLS developed a contingency plan and is implementing it to mitigate any potential business disruptions while ensuring the safety of its non-striking employees, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders,” he said.

“The NHLS has since engaged private and academic laboratories to assist with diagnostic testing. To this end, the NHLS has put together an essential test list which prioritises testing of specimens,” said Gcukumana.

SowetanLIVE reported that the workers had vowed to continue their strike as the essential services committee of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration met on Wednesday to hear arguments about whether NHLS employees could be classified as essential workers.

Nehawu provincial co-ordinator Clement Marule told SowetanLIVE they would protest again on Wednesday.

“We are still on strike because we have served a notice ... We know that management interdicted yesterday, but we are still on strike.”

Numerous attempts by TimesLIVE to reach Nehawu’s spokesperson Khaya Xaba were unsuccessful and WhatsApp questions sent to him were read but not answered.

The NHLS said Nehawu’s strike came after the union claimed there was a breakdown in salary negotiations; failure by the organisation to implement proficiency assessment results; performance management system failures; filling of vacant positions and the provision of PPE.

The NHLS said the issues outlined by Nehawu were “misleading”.

It said Nehawu was demanding an 11% salary increase across the board but the NHLS was not willing to offer any increase, saying its “affected fiscal position” would make salary increases unsustainable in the long run.

Gcukumana said, however, that the parties have not reached a deadlock on the annual salary wage negotiations and discussions were continuing.

He also rejected claims that staff had insufficient protection from Covid-19.

“The staff working in the laboratory environment are required to adhere to biosafety level 2 and biosafety level 4 operating standards. The NHLS has provided adequate personal protective equipment to all its employees. The NHLS adheres to all Covid-19 protocols and health guidelines,” said Gcukumana.