Workers union and DSD square off

People from Mitchells Plain queue for their grant money. Last week members of NEHAWU locked staff up at the Mitchells Plain Social Development Office.

Close to 50 National Health Education and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) members stormed the Department of Social Development’s (DSD) Mitchell’s Plain offices in Beacon Valley on Thursday March 1.

The strike action was planned after negotiations between workers and the DSD about improved service benefits such as salary increases and danger allowances turned sour.

Another strike is planned for today, Wednesday March 22.

According to Sihle Ngobese, spokesman for Social Development MEC Albert Fritz, the Nehawu union members barged into the local office which also houses the South Africa Social Security Agency (SASSA) offices and allegedly proceeded to intimidate the majority of non-striking officials, who were going about their duties, and aggressively forced some of them out of the building while others remained stuck inside.

Mr Ngobese said protest action was illegal as the national Department of Social Development had obtained a court interdict against Nehawu.

“It is of grave concern to us that the group further proceeded to chase out members of the public who had come seeking help at the office. The illegal strikers then caused a hostage situation after they forcefully chained and locked remaining staff inside, and blockaded the entrances,” he said.

A social worker, who was embroiled in the chaos but who cannot be named, said: “The mood was tense, as many did not understand why our office was being targeted or why the protesting staff were so unruly. Most staff at the local office were at work, and only a handful from the Mitchell’s Plain office were part of the 50 Nehawu protesters outside.”

Mr Ngobese said the offices houses 115 staff; 50 from the department and 65 from Sassa.

“The South African Police Services (SAPS) were on the scene and have been provided with a copy of the interdict. Police cut open the gates and released the staff, and contained the protest situation,” he said.

He condemned the behaviour by Nehawu members. “There can be no excuses, under any circumstances, for why vulnerable members of the public were turned away by a group of protesting officials. The DSD’s management will take appropriate disciplinary action against any staff found to have acted unlawfully. We encourage the police to act against any strikers breaking the law. Last week’s events were an assault on the poor by Nehawu,” Mr Ngobese said.

Eric Kweleta, provincial secretary for Nehawu in the Western Cape, said he is highly disturbed and disappointed with the level of arrogance displayed by the Department of Social Development in handling issues related to its employees.

“Instead of responding to the list of demands tabled on Friday February 10 for its attention, the department has resorted to bully tactics and intimidation through court interdicts as a form of weakening our peaceful strike. This attitude and strategy will not work on us as we are not threatened by these tactics, rather they help with the intensification of picket lines instead and members are angered by these tactics. The energy, stamina, time and resources wasted unnecessarily by the department in and out of courts should have been used better to finding lasting solutions to issues raised.”

Mr Kweleta said the department had obtained the temporary court interdicts based on false evidence.

“The union through its legal department is opposing and challenging these court orders. It is regrettable and disappointing to see a government department busy running to the courts instead of resolving issues that gave rise to the strike through engaging the leadership of the union prior to jumping to courts.

“We want to set the record straight that the strike is protected and legal hence we shall continue indefinitely until our demands are met and favourable to members in particular and workers in general. No amount of intimidation or threat will deter our members to fight for their genuine demands,” he said.

He said the union has formally notified SASSA management on the intention to take its members for the second strike today, Wednesday March 22 as part of joining the social development strike.

If a decision is not reached the union has threatened to render the systems of both the DSD and Sassa unworkable.

“At this point, we want to warn government to speedily attend to our demands before broadening the secondary strike to other sectors which we will organise for reinforcement,” Mr Kweleta said.