Durban - As the “illegal” strike by mortuary workers entered its third day and bodies continued to pile up, the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health has turned to the high court in a bid to end the work stoppage.
The department applied for an urgent interdict in the Durban High Court on Wednesday to stop the strike and to stop interference with those who were still reporting for duty.
Department spokesman, Desmond Motha, said while it was an urgent interdict, only two judges were available. He said a ruling was expected Thursday or Friday.
Motha said contingency plans had been put in place and the department was enlisting the help of the SAPS.
Police vehicles had been made available to collect bodies from crime and accident scenes and take them to private funeral parlours and other state mortuaries.
This was to minimise inconvenience to the bereaved and to ensure that funerals planned for the weekend were not disrupted.
Police would help with some of the functions performed by the striking mortuary employees and doctors on duty would perform autopsies.
“Remember this is the function we took from the SAPS in 2006. There are still police members with the requisite skills to ensure there is no backlog,” Motha said.
He said workers who were not on strike, would be dispatched to the affected mortuaries.
The Pinetown and Pietermaritzburg mortuaries were fully functional, he said.
Meanwhile, families have been unable to collect the corpses of their loved ones for burial because of the strike.
On Wednesday, one man said he planned to sleep in his car outside the Magwaza Maphalala (Gale) Street mortuary, until he got his brother’s body.
The department began talks with the Public Workers Union of SA (Pawusa) on Tuesday in an attempt to resolve the internal issues, but the parties failed to reach an agreement.
The striking workers, mainly from the Maphalala Street mortuary, said they were concerned about working conditions, claiming they were at risk while operating without proper protective gear, such as gloves and masks.
Pawusa provincial secretary, Halalisani Gumede, said the strike would continue until the workers’ demands were met. This was despite threats by the department to take disciplinary action against the striking workers.
Motha said the forensic pathology service was an essential service as defined in the Labour Relations Act, and were thus not allowed to strike.
“We have thus given all those partaking in this illegal action an ultimatum that they must return to work, failing which they will face disciplinary action,” he said.
“In compliance with the prescripts of the law, a court interdict has been applied for to prevent workers from continuing with their illegal action and to stop them from interfering with those who are at work.”
However, Gumede argued there was no written policy that prevented workers from embarking on a strike.
“The strike is continuing because the employer does not seem interested in workers’ grievances. It’s funny that they would discipline people, although we started to tell them about the grievances last year.
“When we met them on Tuesday, they did not say anything about going to court. We might approach the public protector because what is going on is not right,” he said.
The provincial strike has led to disturbances at some of the 40 mortuaries, including in Phoenix, KwaDukuza, Richards Bay, Eshowe, Mtubatuba and Nongoma.
When the Daily News visited the Maphalala Street mortuary on Wednesday, grieving families had gathered outside the gate as there was no one on duty to help them with the paperwork to collect their loved ones.
Khosi Buthelezi said he had travelled from Johannesburg to his home in Nquthu, northern KwaZulu-Natal, and then to Durban to collect his brother’s body, but was unable to do so.
“I have been waiting all day and I have been told I might not be able to get my brother until next week or until the end of the strike.”
His brother died in Durban and the family had planned to bury him this weekend.
“I won’t go home without him, even if it means I have to sleep in my car until I get it (the body). If I go home and come after the strike, I will waste R3 600,” he said.
“As I have to return to work in Johannesburg on Monday, I may have to put in for leave.”
He said other families had returned to their homes without relatives’ bodies.
Health Department spokesman, Desmond Motha, said MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo had apologised to relatives for the inconvenience caused.
At the Magwaza Maphalala (Gale) Street mortuary, more than 25 bodies had been awaiting post-mortems since Monday. By Wednesday, post-mortems had been conducted on 12 of them.
The rest of the bodies are expected to be processed on Thursday and Friday.