Things came to a head last week when lay counsellors and home-based care givers in Gauteng protested and trashed the head offices of the provincial Health Department in Johannesburg. The unannounced protest occurred after they had accepted numerous promises from officials who assured them that they will get paid for rendering their services in HIV counselling and testing and looking after ill patients at their homes. Following the violent protest, the 6 000-plus work-force were once again promised that they will get paid their stipends of R1 500, which haven’t been paid since April. Officials from the provincial Health Department and Treasury promised that payment will start being effected through from Tuesday until Friday this week. But the workers have taken the officials’ words with a pinch of salt and have said they will only return to work when their monies have been paid.
‘These are only promising talks. We still don’t have something tangible. That decision, definitely, will be up to the masses after the payments have been conducted’, says David Qacha, vice-chairperson of the task team for HIV counsellors in Gauteng.
The task team and the provincial Health Department have resolved to meet on the 4th of September to discuss a payment structure that will avoid delays in the processing of stipends in the future. The meeting will also discuss training and career development opportunities for lay counsellors and home-based care givers and a system that will absorb them into the provincial Health Department. Currently, they work as volunteers under a number of non-governmental organisations. The three-month long strike has compromised the quality of care that patients receive at public health facilities. For instance, many pregnant women are not offered HIV counselling and testing.
‘Some of the patients are not counselled at all because we are only two mid-wives here. So, I can’t palpate, I can’t counsel and I can’t pre-counsel or do testing. It’s a lot of load to me. So, most of the patients are going back without being counselled. Others are positive’¦ they are giving birth to positive babies. No counselling, no treatment is given to them. We want a HIV-negative community. So, the counsellors are there to take part ‘ whether the mother is negative or positive. If they come across a mother who is positive, they immediately send the mother to us and we immediately give treatment. I think our government should take care of these counsellors because they are the people who are taking care of the community. Without counsellors, really, we can’t work’, says an already over-burdened nursing sister who spoke to us on condition of anonymity.
The failure by the provincial Health Department to pay and the subsequent strike by the lay counsellors and home-based care givers has also affected the workers who depend on the R1 500 stipends for themselves and their families’ livelihoods. The workers pleaded with the department to effect payment urgently.
‘Let them just think about us. We are only human beings and without money there’s nothing we can do’.
‘I’m in debt with my accounts. Where I stay, I’m a bread-winner. I need to pay some of the bills which are there at my house. But, now, I cannot meet those requirements’.
‘My challenge is I’m a bread-winner at home. I have three daughters and I don’t have money to support those children’.
‘Please, for God’s sake and for peace sake, give us our money. I’ve worked for the R1 500. Every day when I wake up I cry because my baby cries also’¦ with an empty stomach. We go to bed with empty stomachs, we wake up with empty stomachs. Can we please have that money’?, they said.
Democratic Alliance health spokesperson in Gauteng, Jack Bloom, said in a statement that the payment of lay counselors and home-based care givers has been badly handled by the provincial Health Department. Bloom said the workers perform valuable work and need to be treated with dignity instead of being ignored.