There is currently no end in sight for the mortuary strike in KwaZulu-Natal, as a growing number of stakeholders are putting pressure on government and National Health Education and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) to end the impasse.

This comes as dead bodies pile up at provincial mortuaries. 

More than three weeks ago angry workers at provincial government mortuaries embarked on a go-slow, protesting against low salaries, “unbearable” working conditions such as broken air-conditioners, broken toilets, old uniforms and a lack of cleaning equipment.

The strike has forced families of the dead people to postpone funerals as autopsies have not been performed.

Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo, who is a specialist by profession, donned his uniform and surgical gloves, and performed at least two autopsies at Fort Napier medico-legal mortuary in Pietermaritzburg during the strike. 

The South African Medical Association (Sama), the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa) in KwaZulu-Natal, and the IFP are the latest organisations to put pressure on the warring sides to speedily end the strike.

Denosa provincial secretary Mandla Shabangu said the organisation was concerned about the strike’s effect on health services in the province.

“When a patient has [died], the nurse responsible for his/her care must ensure that all details of the patient’s whereabouts in the mortuary are such that they can account to patient’s families.

“But because corpses are not being attended to, the shelves have filled up to such that bodies are dropped on the floor by workers and, in many instances, on top of each other,” Shabangu said.

He said this has caused distress to both the nurses and the members of the public.

“Now patient’s families won’t be able to easily see their relative’s bodies as well. Corpses may go missing, and our members will face charges that they shouldn’t be facing had all the issues that the workers are complaining about been sorted by the department,” he said.

IFP provincial health spokesperson Ncamisile Nkwanyana said it was “regrettable” that the matter reached a stage where “they have no alternative than to resort to a go-slow”. 

“This strike will be a disaster for the province. If mortuary workers do not work efficiently and preserve dead bodies, the public could be exposed to serious infectious diseases.”

Dhlomo said the workers had not returned, despite his department obtaining a court order compelling them to.

Last Friday dozens of mortuary workers in the province barricaded the mortuaries, daring officials and the police to  arrest them. The provincial cabinet said in a statement last week it had received a full briefing on the matter, and called for strong action to be taken against striking workers.

“The KwaZulu-Natal executive council  is appalled by the report, and has called on mortuary employees in the province to end their illegal strike or face the consequences.

The provincial government described the actions of the mortuary employees as “immoral, disrespectful to the deceased as well as inhuman to the bereaved families”. 

Nehawu said it was continually engaging its striking workers, but had thus far not been able to convince them to end their strike and return to work.