State ambulance shutdown
Private crews called in after illegal strike
Private ambulances had to be called in to assist for emergencies as Nelson Mandela Bay faced a total state ambulance shutdown when medics across the Eastern Cape went on a full-blown illegal strike on Monday.
Angry ambulance crews barricaded the gates at the Lindsay Street headquarters of the metro emergency medical services (EMS) in Port Elizabeth, preventing ambulances from leaving the facility to respond to calls.
Health department spokesperson Lwandile Sicwetsha said none of the emergency bases in the province were operational due to the strike.
Sicwetsha said health MEC Helen Sauls-August was activating contingency plans to make emergency medical services available during the illegal strike.
The strike is set to continue today as ambulance crews from all over the province travel to Bhisho to meet with their union representatives to discuss the outcome of a meeting with the Health Department on Monday.
Sicwetsha confirmed that the unions were expected to give feedback today.
"This illegal strike is unwarranted," he said.
Crees from Nelson Mandela Bay departed from EMS headquarters in Lindsay Street, Korten around 7 am.
“The interim measures include the use of private ambulances to respond to life-threatening priority cases until the situation returns to normal.”
By law, ambulance crews are not allowed to strike.
On Monday afternoon, union members and top management of the health department were locked in emergency meetings in East London.
There are 272 EMS operational staff in the Bay – apart from management – while there are 30 ambulances on every shift.
One of the senior representatives for the SA Emergency Workers Union in Port Elizabeth, who did not want to be named for fear of victimisation, said that, as far as he was aware, almost the entire metro EMS workforce had joined the strike.
“We know it is illegal but we could no longer control the anger of the people,” he said.
Some workers have been waiting for overtime payments for 15 years.
Employees are demanding the outstanding overtime and excess hours payments since 2013 and, in some cases, overtime that has remained unpaid since 2003.
“We are protesting [against] our working conditions, shortages of staff and shortages of ambulances, but our biggest issue is the payment of excess hours,” the union representative said.
“We are working 12 hours a day and the law says we should work a 40-hour week. We are not paid for these hours.
“They [the department] promised to pay this, but they only paid until June this year.
“They haven’t paid us since then.”
He said the trigger was when management returned from a series of meetings last week and did not communicate any decisions about excess hours to the ambulance crews. “We are furious,” he said. “As a union, we cannot control the anger of the people any more. It is their money that they have worked for.”
Treatment Action Campaign deputy chair Thembisile Nogampule said private ambulances had to be sent for pregnant women and people who had suffered trauma injuries.
“We phoned Brenhan Metune, the head of EMS in the metro, and he sent a private ambulance to help.” Nogampule said the first crisis case of the day was a woman who had gone into labour.
“They were really struggling on the trauma side too.”
Richard Moodie, from Relay EMS, said they had handled a number of emergency calls on Monday.
“They [metro EMS] requested our assistance with a few emergencies.”
Gardmed owner Dave Gardner said they had also received a call on Monday to help out.
The full-blown strike followed a sit-in on Friday and a go-slow by the crews at the weekend.
In August, provincial health superintendent-general Dr Thobile Mbengashe made damning concessions in his annual report about the woefully understaffed, under-resourced and underpaid EMS service in the province.
Mbengashe stated that only about 50% of the 416 ambulances in the province were fully operational and ready for dispatching at any given time.
He said the service needed more than double its existing staff complement to conform to national norms.
“The vacancy rate within EMS is high given the national norms and standards, resulting in high overtime and absenteeism rates.
“Given the current operational staff complement (approximately 1,700) and the amount of ambulances (416) at hand, a total of 3,328 people would be needed,” he said.
The disgruntled EMS crews used discarded hospital beds to block the entrances at the ambulance headquarters.
“We work 12-hour shifts or longer and we are so busy that we can’t even take a break for lunch,” one of the workers barricading the gates said.
Police spokesperson Captain Johan Rheeder said police had been called in to remove strikers from the premises.
One of the strike leaders said: “The police removed our barriers and opened the gates.
“Day-shift workers were threatened to return to work.”
Another worker said: “We love our calling so much.
“We pray this gets resolved as soon as possible because it is our own communities that are suffering.
“It is the last thing we want but the department of health must know this is a drastic step.”
Sicwetsha said: “All emergency bases are not operational at the moment due to the illegal protests.
“The public is advised to make use of our call centre number: 0800-032364.”
He said officials were processing the payment of excess hours from 2015 to 2018.
“The outstanding payment relates to the dispute between 2003 [and] 2014. This matter is still under discussion between the department and labour representatives.”
Sauls-August said: “We are disappointed that the workers have embarked on an illegal strike knowing very well that they are essential service employees and therefore are not allowed to be on strike.
“The department will undertake internal processes for on-duty employees involved in this illegal strike.”
Six people were reported to have died during a go-slow by EMS personnel in the eastern part of the province in June and July over the same issue.