The nationwide industrial action is expected to last at least until Friday and could affect patients living with conditions such as cancer and HIV.
Workers from the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) will embark on a national strike on Wednesday after last-minute wage negotiations stalled.
NHLS managers met officials from the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) and the Public Servants Association of South Africa (PSA), representing laboratory workers, on Monday in an attempt to thwart nationwide industrial action. Although the NHLS and unions agreed on a 7.3% wage increase, they could not agree on workers’ benefits such as a housing allowance, medical aid and uniform allowance.
Both Nehawu and the PSA told Bhekisisa that they will strike from Wednesday after negotiations deadlocked. “They are offering us 7.3%, but with no added benefits like housing and medical aid. So we are still in dispute. The strike is [starting] tomorrow,” said PSA assistant general manager Tahir Maepa on Tuesday.
Unions had initially demanded a 13% wage increase at the start of negotiations, an amount that eventually fell to 7.3%. The NHLS had countered by offering a 3% increase, which unions flatly rejected, saying that 7.3% was the minimum offer they would accept.
Previous strikes at the health laboratory services have shut down diagnostic services such as cervical cancer screening and HIV viral load testing at some major hospitals.
In Gauteng, health department spokesperson Prince Hamnca said the province had contingency plans in the event of industrial action. If workers downed tools, the NHLS would prioritise urgent lifesaving tests. However, he did not specify what types of tests these were.
But Nehawu spokesperson Khaya Xaba said that the strike could be over by Friday, provided that the NHLS board met workers’ demands.
Shabir Madhi, the acting chief executive of the NHLS, said the organisation could not offer workers benefits unless the provincial health departments of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal paid outstanding debts.
“The NHLS staff were informed that the current financial position of the organisation is tenuous. Unless the provinces honour their outstanding debt, the NHLS faces an uncertain financial future,” he warned.
The Gauteng health department allegedly owes the NHLS R696‑million, according to a statement released by Democratic Alliance’s Gauteng shadow health MEC, Jack Bloom. He believes that if the province pays up, the NHLS could deliver on workers’ demands.
But Hamnca said the exact amount owed to the organisation was still in dispute. He said the department continued to make monthly payments to the NHLS, which is responsible for all laboratory tests conducted in the public sector.
Maepa said the NHLS board had the final say over workers’ salaries and benefits. The board was due to meet late on Tuesday to discuss how to proceed.