The health department, which claims that it is ready to roll out one of the most far-reaching and expensive health initiatives in the history of South Africa, appears unable to provide a “healthy” working environment for its own personnel.
Since September 2018, hundreds of employees at the department’s Civitas building in Pretoria have refused to enter it after it was declared unsafe and unhealthy.
Every morning they arrive for work and gather in the lobby where they wait until 11am before leaving.
Zweli Mkhize, the minister of health, has now ordered the department to find an alternative office urgently, although it is unclear how long this will take.
The labour department declared the building unsafe in October 2018.
At the time, City Press’ sister publication, Rapport, reported that the building complied with only 20% of the safety standards mandated by the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Health workers’ union Nehawu confirmed that it had more than 600 members in the department.
Khaya Xaba, a spokesperson for Nehawu, said the department had committed to finding another office in August 2018, but had been dragging its feet since then.
The building accommodates about 1 400 workers, including the regulatory authority for healthcare products.
Last year the employees complained that they were battling to do their job.
Union members from Nehawu and the Public Servants’ Association of SA had been complaining for years about problematic electrical connections, regular flooding in parts of the building and “black dust” that clings to windows, walls and air conditioning units.
Early in 2018, a Nehawu poll among 88 personnel found that 48 people regularly struggled with headaches, dizziness, sinus and breathing problems.
Last Tuesday Mkhize held an urgent meeting with his deputy, Joe Phaahla, Anban Pillay, acting director-general, and senior management members to discuss progress on the matter.
According to a statement released on Tuesday, Mkhize held a meeting with Patricia de Lille, the minister of public works, in December and they agreed that the workers needed to be moved urgently.
Xaba said that, according to a circular from the director-general, no one was expected to be on the property after 11am.
“Our members have been advised to report to the lobby until the employer has found another building.”
He said certain workers were placing their health in danger by going into the building; others were being intimidated – or feared victimisation – by their supervisors.
Mkhize has now ordered the department’s management to go ahead with the implementation of the process and for arrangements to be made for employees to return to working full days.
Xaba blamed the relocation committee for the delays, saying it had not done anything to address the workers’ complaints or the recommendations made by labour inspectors.
The department was committed to finding a new office for employees, he said, but there had been three relocation committees since 2018 and it was clear the committees had not taken “the relocation seriously”.