Durban - An idefinate strike that began on Monday at state mortuaries in KwaZulu-Natal has affected post-mortems and the identification of bodies.
Adding to the disruptions, a small group of forensic pathology officers and support assistants protested outside the province’s busiest mortuary in Magwaza Maphalala (Gale) Street on Monday.
The workers are responsible for technical assistance, helping with dissecting bodies, as well as collecting bodies at crime scenes and helping families with identification.
Leading the strike, Public and Allied Workers Union of SA (Pawusa) provincial secretary Halalisani Gumede said moves were afoot to try and resolve the internal grievances.
The province-wide strike led to disturbances at some of the 40 or so mortuaries in KZN including Phoenix, KwaDukuza, Richards Bay, Eshowe, Mtubatuba and Nongoma.
The spokesman for the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health, Desmond Motha, said a meeting was expected to be held today to resolve the issues.
However he said that because workers were performing essential services, they were not permitted to strike.
Gumede disputed this, saying the policy was not in writing and was only brought up by the department when workers attempted to go on strike.
He claimed that the health of workers was at risk, particularly at the Magwaza Maphalala Street mortuary, where he said conditions were particularly bad.
One of the workers - who did not want to be named - said the air-conditioning at the mortuary had not been working for some time.
He added that staff were also not equipped with proper protective gear, such as masks and gloves.
“We have been waiting for our working conditions to change for more than eight years,” he said.
Workers vowed not to return to work until their demands were met.
The chairman of the Islamic Burial Council, Ahmed Paruk, said on Monday that the troubles plaguing the mortuaries were especially concerning for Muslims who, according to Islamic law, had to be buried within hours of death.
Paruk said he had written to the department in November, raising several concerns, including the non-functioning of an X-ray machine for two years.
Bodies had to be transported to Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital in Durban for X-rays, causing “a tremendous inconvenience to grieving families”, he said.
And with bodies going to the hospital from the Pinetown and Phoenix mortuaries, burials were delayed even further, he said.
“About a month ago, bodies had to be transported to Pietermaritzburg and a week and a half ago, X-rays were being done in Newcastle.
“That is too far. Families will not be able to bury on time and also have to think about the extra transport costs,” Paruk said.
In January, in a written response to his concerns, the provincial general manager for forensic services, Dr Mandla Mazizi, said the department was in the process of acquiring a new X-ray machine, but that one might not be sufficient because of the heavy workload at the mortuary.
“This will be resolved once our new facility in Phoenix is completed,” he wrote.
Once completed, the R68 750 000 mortuary at Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Phoenix will have the capacity to store 460 bodies.
Mazizi had also said that the air-conditioning at the Magwaza Maphalala Street Mortuary was working, and that there were on-site technicians to attend to any problems.
He also disputed problems with protective gear, saying he could not obtain any evidence of a shortage.
Mortuary staff are also calling for back pay stemming from a grievance lodged by Pawusa with the Public Health and Social Development Sectoral Bargaining Council in 2009.
They claimed that when forensic pathology services were taken over by the Health Department from the SAPS in 2006, staff were placed on incorrect salary levels.
This was only rectified from 2010, which meant employees were short paid, they said.
The union also alleged that the department had used a “blanket approach” that did not recognise work experience.
Gumede said this left experienced employees earning the same as those who had just entered the field.