Healthcare workers threaten strike

Andrew Kathindi

The Public Service Union of Namibia (PSUN) has threatened to rally healthcare workers this Thursday (28 January) to leave their work until the matter of risk allowance is resolved.

Health minister, Kalumbi Shangula, earlier this month revealed that over 1300 healthcare workers have been infected by COVID-19, with six deaths from the sector.

“Healthcare workers were also forced to perform duties without the necessary personal protective equipment (PPEs). If the government is not recognising them, why should they have to avail themselves and to risk their lives any further? And that is what we are going to do. We will tell them to invoke section 42 of the Labour Act,” PSUN Secretary General, Ujama Kaahangoro, told Windhoek Observer.

In terms of Section 42 of the Labour Act, employees have a right to leave dangerous place of work if they have a “reasonable cause to believe that, until effective measures have been taken, it is neither safe nor healthy to continue work in a place of work, that employee may leave that place”.

Kaahangoro said his union wrote to the Minister of Finance, Iipumbu Shiimi, when the COVID-19 pandemic started picking up last year, asking him to set aside an additional budget for use to compensate frontline health workers as a token of appreciation, and as risk allowance for the job they are doing.

Shiimi then directed the union to approach the Ministry of Labour, which they did, addressing the same letter to the Minister, Utoni Nujoma.

“We have not received a reply from the Labour ministry with regards to that since we wrote the letter, “he said.

Kaaharongo stated that the union has not approached the Office of the Prime Minister as it only regulates and ensures adherence to policies.

“The policies need to be initiated from somewhere. If the Minister of Finance had seen that there was a need, he wouldn’t even have directed us to the Ministry of Labour. If funds were available, they should have just suggested to the Prime Minister to put this in place. And then the Prime Minister could have easily drafted a policy that would regulate and enforce these incentives during this particular time.”

Namibia Nurses Union (NANU) Acting Secretary General, Junias Shilunga, said that there has been no movement with regards to engagements with government over risk allowance for healthcare workers.

“We are concerned with the number of infected healthcare workers. They are not taking the nurses serious. For us it’s to keep on fighting, while we have our nurses getting infected. They should even have given them a once-off token of appreciation. We are going to meet as a union to re-set the agenda for risk allowance.”

He said the situation with regards to PPE has improved arguing, however, that healthcare workers are part of the community and remain at risk as a result.

“The government has not provided them with accommodation or transport, and some of them use public transport and that’s where they can get the virus. The issue isn’t really with healthcare workers dealing with positive cases, since the alert there is high. It’s nurses working in places like emergency and maternity where they don’t really use PPEs.”

Labour Ministry Executive Director, Bro-Mathew Shinguadja, said he was not aware of PSUN’s letter and that PSUN did not have any bargaining authority on behalf of civil servants.

He further pointed out that healthcare workers were not the only frontline workers.

Namibia is currently experiencing a second wave of COVID-19, which is confirmed to be worse than the first.

“It’s not just a Namibian issue, it’s world-wide. There is also a misunderstanding of who is a front-liner. Some people think it’s only those in the health sector, what about those standing in the shops? There’s nothing between them and the client. Same with people at the boarders, law enforcement,” he told Windhoek Observer.

He added, “Those issues are subject to negotiation. I’m sure one of the representative unions will one day bring that up and then we can look at everybody holistically.”

Shinguadja said the issue of negotiating for risk allowance for healthcare workers should be done by the Namibia Public Workers Union (Napwu) through the office of the Prime Minister, which represents government, the employer.

Health Minister, Kalumbi Shangula, on Tuesday confirmed that the death toll caused by COVID-19 has been spiraling.

“Although the number of hospitalised confirmed cases and those in ICU have decreased by 13 percent and 30 percent respectively in the last 24 hours, it is worrisome to note that the number of deaths are on an upward spiral,” said he.

Namibia has thus far recorded 32 957 cases of COVID-19 and 328 deaths.

The Phillipines, last year sanctioned a special allowance for frontline healthcare workers. President Rodrigo Duterte approved an active hazard duty pay of up to P3,000 (N$951) per month to all employees in the public health sector and serving in the frontlines.

Britain pays N$1,24 million as compensation to families of health workers who die from COVID-19 while performing their duties.

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