Labour judge takes laboratory workers to task for their lack of empathy
"As a society‚ we have lost our sense of Ubuntu towards the suffering and pain of our fellow beings‚ especially those caught in a moment of grief and bereavement." Labour Court Judge J Tlhotlhalemaje has reminded South Africans that pay disputes do not overrule what is morally right.
At stake was a work-to-rule action at Gauteng’s forensic laboratories‚ with unionised forensics officers from the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) and Public Servants Association of SA wanting the same basic grade as pathologists. While granting an interdict at the weekend to halt the stoppage‚ the judge criticised the workers as well as the government for not adequately recognising ordinary citizens’ rights to be treated with dignity.
The forensics officers work throughout Gauteng and assist forensic pathologists. Their work affects the evidence presented in court and ensures that the cause of death is determined and correctly recorded at the Department of Home Affairs‚ before bereaved families can arrange funerals.
The judge commented on the employer’s representative not knowing whether workers had downed tools on December 1 or 2. Tlhotlhalemaje said this "makes one question the seriousness with which it viewed the matter". The employer approached the court only two days later.
The strike was unprotected as the employees had not complied with labour law requirements‚ the judge found.
But a more important issue was the effect on families‚ as the protest action stretched into the weekend of December 3-4.
"It is apparent that their actions were calculated and planned. They were aware that between Thursdays and Fridays and, more specifically, over weekends‚ that is when bereaved families planned to bury their loved ones. By design [their] conduct had devastating consequences for bereaved families‚ who after preparations at great expense‚ could not bury their loved ones during the period of this ill-considered strike action‚" the judge said.
The Gauteng health department as the employer was not spared. The judge said its belated and half-hearted actions to prevent the work-to-rule action had "failed these families in the cruellest way imaginable".
Tlhotlhalemaje said: "The strike action and its consequences in this case are nowhere near being ordinary‚ and everything about this strike points to how as a society‚ we have lost our sense of Ubuntu towards the suffering and pain of our fellow beings‚ especially those caught in a moment of grief and bereavement.
"It is accepted that ordinarily‚ when employees embark on some form of industrial action‚ the intention is to inflict some form of economic damage and to make the employer yield to their demands. This is irrespective of how legitimate or unreasonable those demands may be. This has become part and parcel of our industrial relations system and we have become accustomed to it.
Ordinary citizens caught in this power-play invariably become inconvenienced and helpless bystanders‚ with no role to play. However‚ when the consequences of such industrial action are felt more by unsuspecting ordinary citizens in their moment of grief‚ and when it affects their rights to human dignity and the rights of their loved ones who are deceased and yet to be buried to be treated with respect and dignity‚ hard ethical questions need to be asked‚ as this court and ordinary citizens caught in this cross-fire can no longer just stand and watch."
He said the events left him "in a state of shock and numbness‚ at the level of how we as humans can be so callous and inhumane towards the plight and suffering of others‚ simply in pursuance of our own narrow-minded‚ if not narcissistic interests".
The judge said the questions raised by the case were not to be understood or answered within the context of any legal framework. "They are to be answered through our appreciation and understanding of the concept of Ubuntu‚ which forms the value base of our Constitution.
It is not for this court to pass moral judgment on the conduct of the employees.... However‚ where employees while pursuing narrow and self-serving interests‚ and in the process‚ consciously forget about the basic values of Ubuntu‚ and ignore their fellow being’s grief‚ sorrow and suffering‚ only one description is befitting: shameless."
He told the health department and forensic workers to put themselves in the shoes of bereaved families‚ whose pain had been aggravated by their actions. "These parties must make a concerted effort to come up with answers that have been posed in this judgment‚ which will hopefully prevent a repeat of this national tragedy.
"Our deceased and their families deserved better. Society has failed them‚ and as South Africans‚ we should all hang our heads in shame."
Tlhotlhalemaje ordered that copies of the judgment be delivered at the offices of Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi and the Gauteng MEC for health "for appropriate action to be taken against any of the parties involved in this application where it is deemed necessary".
MEC Qedani Mahlangu on Thursday offered her assurance to the public that operations at all state forensic pathology service facilities in the province were back to normal.
"Forensic officers are now back at work. Post mortems on all outstanding cases are being fast-tracked accordingly. We have been interacting with them to resolve their issues‚ but we don’t condone disruption of service delivery‚" Mahlangu said in a statement.
The MEC also apologised for the inconvenience caused to the public.