Thousands of workers laid down tools at the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) on Wednesday as the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) took its members out on strike after failed wage negotiations.

The action could dent health service delivery as the NHLS tests patients for AIDS, cancer, tuberculosis and other diseases.

Unions initially demanded a 13% annual increase across the board, but the NHLS said it could offer only 3%.

Unions dropped their demand to 7.3%, which the employer matched on the day the strike began. The offer is yet to be accepted by the unions.

Acting CEO of the NHLS Shabir Madhi said the unions had not accepted the offer because they wanted immediate implementation of promotions after proficiency assessments and insourcing of security, cleaning and maintenance personnel who were contracted to external service providers.

The Department of Health has offered to phase in insourcing from April 1 2018, subject to finalising an agreed modality for its implementation, which will include holistic costing by an insourcing task team.

Madhi said provincial area managers would work with their counterparts in the provincial health departments to tackle specific challenges.

"The ultimate aim is to ensure that all emergency tests are prioritised to minimise the effect of this strike action on patient care," Madhi said.

Nehawu spokesman Kaya Xaba said the first day of the strike was successful and workers had protested peacefully. Xaba said although the employer had now matched the unions’ reduced demand of 7.3%, other issues like allowances and insourcing needed ironing out.

"The biggest issue for workers is the return of the NHLS to the public service so that these workers can get the same benefits as those received by workers in the public service."

Xaba said the prevalence of maladministration and corruption needed to be dealt with to resolve problems in the service’s governing structures, which were "in a shambles".

Madhi said nonpayment by some provincial health departments for services rendered was the biggest challenge the NHLS faced in dealing with the Department of Health.

About R5bn was owed by provinces. Gauteng’s debt stood at R696m.

DA health spokesman Jack Bloom said the strike could have been avoided if provincial health departments had paid their debts to the NHLS so that it could afford to meet reasonable worker demands.

Nehawu began the nationwide strike on Wednesday.

The strike was set to continue on Thursday.


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