than 100 KwaZulu-Natal paramedics have mysteriously booked in sick, crippling the provincial ambulance service and prompting a warning of potential disciplinary action by Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo on Tuesday.
The MEC, who went to Stanger Hospital on Tuesday after learning that 124 state paramedics had not reported for duty since Sunday, ordered them to produce proof of their illness or face serious consequences.
The mass absenteeism – later attributed to gripes over danger and overtime pay – meant about one in five of the province’s ambulances was out of action, which KZN Department of Health spokesman, Sam Mkhwanazi, conceded was a serious problem.
He said each ambulance was operated by two people, which meant 62 ambulances were not in use.
Mkhwanazi said the issue of paramedics not reporting for work because they were “ill” started in the Ilembe district, spread to uMzinyathi, Amajuba and uThukela and now to Durban.
Dhlomo said the problem was evident last week at Stanger Hospital.
“On January 30, we were expecting 50 paramedics to show up for work, but 30 of them had called in sick.
“On the first (of February) we were expecting 40 to report for duty, but 33 did not come and all of them had also reported sick and had remained ill for the duration of their four-day shift,” he said.
Because of the absenteeism, the Health Department has been battling to keep its ambulance service running.
Seeing this “illness” hindering the ambulance service, Dhlomo said that he had decided to visit the hospital and find out why paramedics were ill all of a sudden, especially since there was no outbreak of any disease in the province.
“I went there to see how ill they were and did find out that they were ‘ill’ – because they were not getting danger allowance and overtime as they were working long hours,” he said.
“These are issues that are currently being addressed. The issue of danger allowance is a national issue and it is still with the national bargaining council and has not been concluded.”
The MEC blamed axed department employee, Sifiso Dlamini, as the main instigator in the work stoppage, and accused Dlamini of trying to assault him on Tuesday.
He said the man had to be restrained by police.
Dlamini denied the MEC’s accusations, saying: “I was just trying to shake his hand before leaving.”
Dhlomo said Dlamini had been dismissed last year “for his bad behaviour and we believe he is the troublemaker in this situation”.
“When I was speaking to the paramedics, he came with a loudhailer and tried to address the workers in my presence. I did not allow it and he then dismissed them while I was speaking. He tried to hit me, but was stopped. They then left, hurling all sort of insults at me.”
Dlamini did not deny that the disgruntled paramedics had intentionally walked out on Dhlomo, saying the MEC was not saying what they wanted to hear.
“We wanted all our grievances to be addressed, but this did not happen,” Dlamini said.
“He just wanted to tell us that he was working with the unions and they (the unions) said nothing in our defence. So we felt they were on his side and left,” he said.
However, the paramedics had since agreed to return to work immediately, Dlamini said, as they had decided to take the matter to the Public Service Sectoral Bargaining Council.
“We will not stop fighting for our rights,” said Dlamini, adding that he was also seeking to challenge his alleged unfair dismissal.
The general secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, Zola Saphetha, urged all their affected members to return to work as soon as possible, saying they should not be influenced by Dlamini.
“The sad thing is, this guy (Dlamini) is not even a member of the union. He is not even currently employed. We are afraid that if our members continue to listen to him, they will lose their jobs,” he said.
Saphetha said the grievances were being attended to.
“We have a meeting with the department on February 21 to discuss these very issues,” he said. “All we are asking is for our members to have faith in us and be patient.
“They must remember it is not for us to fight for them if they are unemployed. We are totally against any form of illegal strike.”
Mkhwanazi said the absenteeism had led to delays in responding to emergency calls, and in certain instances, intimidation of emergency care officials.
Paramedics should remember that human lives were important, he said.
“They need to remember that they are dealing with people’s lives and need to respect that, no matter what.”
He said the department was monitoring the situation closely with a view to taking corrective measures to ensure the public received timeous and quality services guaranteed to them by the constitution.
Dhlomo has also called on community leaders and members of the public to report to the police any criminal activities against emergency care officials and emergency vehicles.