Failed talks could lead to lab strikes
Health minister called to provide a plan of action
THE Health Department was yesterday locked in a meeting with the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) and unions in a bid to broker a solution to an impasse over wage negotiations.
This takes place amid threats by some of the unions to embark on strike action following the failure to reach an agreement with the NHLS.
A dispute has already been lodged with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) for conciliation, but it has been stayed pending further negotiations.
This has now sparked fears that public clinics and hospitals, which receive more than 80% of all pathology diagnostic services from NHLS, will be at the receiving end if the strike goes ahead.
The recent strike by mortuary workers in Gauteng had a devastating effect on members of the public, with more than 300 bodies having to lie for weeks awaiting post-mortems.
In an interview, department spokesperson Joe Maila said the meeting with the NHLS and the unions was called out of concern for the welfare of the people.
“We are trying to find a way to get the parties to agree with one another,” Maila said.
Both the National Health Education & Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) and the Public Servants Association (PSA) confirmed the meeting.
They have tabled for salary increases ranging between 7.3% and 13%.
It is believed the NHLS is offering 3% due to funding challenges. However, this could not be confirmed as it did not respond to specific media questions.
In a statement, NHLS acting chief executive Shabir Madhi confirmed that the question of salary increases had not yet been resolved. He said the CCMA had issued unions with a certificate to embark on a protected strike.
“The NHLS has, however, not yet received a notice from labour of its intention to embark on a strike, and NHLS management remains engaged with labour to finding an amicable solution to avert the strike,” he said.
Nehawu spokesperson Khaya Xaba said the union has tabled a 13% salary increase demand, but the NHLS had yet to make a counter-offer.
“The response of the NHLS will be a determining factor with regard to our next step,” Xaba said.
Leon Gilbert, PSA’s assistant general manager for collective bargaining, said their demand was 7.3%, but that the NHLS had claimed to have no money in its coffers.
Gilbert said they referred the matter to the CCMA, but this had been postponed to allow parties to reach an agreement.
“Our demand is reasonable under the current circumstances,” Gilbert said.
Contacted for comment, Health and Other Service Personnel Trade Union of South Africa general secretary Noel Desfontaines would only say “we are seeking a mandate”.
Gilbert was adamant that his union would not back down any further since its demand had been reduced through negotiations.
“It (NHLS) must get its funding in order. That is a fair demand,” he said.
The unions’ tough stance has now prompted the DA to ask Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi to intervene.
The DA’s Patricia Kopane said it was crucial that arrangements were made in advance with private laboratories. A strike would be devastating for patients in need of urgent tests for HIV/Aids, malaria, cancer, and Multi-Drug Resistant TB, she said.
She called on Motsoaledi to provide a detailed plan of action in order to mitigate the devastating consequences of a strike.
“Past tragedies have shown that the national Health Department’s inaction has been at the centre of too many crises in the health-care sector.”
Madhi said the NHLS was aware of the possible negative impact that the strike might have.
“NHLS management in various provinces will work with the provincial departments of health to minimise the impact,” he said, adding that they were working on contingency plans to ensure that essential laboratory services were provided.
We are trying to find a way to get parties to agree