The National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) is expected to meet with unions on Monday in a last-minute attempt to avoid a national strike that could start as soon as Wednesday.

Managers from the health laboratory service are slated to meet with officials from the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) and the Public Servants Association of South Africa (PSA) representing laboratory workers as part of ongoing wage negotiations.

Monday’s meeting comes after unions demanded a 7.3% wage increase after the national laboratory services said it could offer workers no increases in salary. The NHLS countered with an offer of a 3% salary increase “subject to getting funding”, says PSA assistant general manager Tahir Maepa.

Maepa says the union is not confident this funding will materialise.

“If you say 3%, it must be something that you have in the kitty and that you are able to give immediately. We can say with credibility that [the NHLS] will not be able to give that out.”

Unions had originally asked the NHLS for an increase of 13%.

Both Nehawu and PSA have given the NHLS notice that their members will embark on a strike action starting on Wednesday if their demands are not met.

The NHLS provides laboratory testing services for the public sector and bills provincial health departments for this. NHLS Acting CEO Shabir Madhi says a 7.3% increase in salaries is impossible as some provincial health departments have not paid their NHLS bills.

“The NHLS has indicated to the unions that although their demand was reasonable, management was at this stage unable to meet the demand as the organisation was experiencing severe financial stress,” Madhi told Bhekisisa.

The Gauteng health department allegedly owes the NHLS R696 millin, according to Democratic Alliance’s Gauteng shadow health MEC Jack Bloom. He believes that if the province pays up, the national laboratory service could deliver on workers’ demands.

The Gauteng health department did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, national health department spokesperson Popo Maja confirms that Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal continue to owe the NHLS large and long-standing debts.

“The [national health] department has contacted provincial health and treasury regarding amounts owing. These provinces have been requested to pay outstanding accounts within a period of seven working days. Alternative measures to access the funds owed by provinces are being pursued with National Treasury,” Popo says.

Previous strikes at the health laboratory services have shut down diagnostic services such as cervical cancer screening and HIV viral load testing at some major hospitals.

HIV viral load testing, which measures the amount of HIV in a person’s blood, is the only way to tell whether the virus in a person’s body has developed resistance to their current antiretroviral medication. Without viral load results, doctors and nurses may not know that some patients need to be switched to different treatment regimens.

Both Nehawu and PSA tell Bhekisisa they will accept nothing less than a 7.3% increase, which Nehawu national spokesperson Khaya Xaba says is barely above the current inflation rate of 5.3%.

He says: “This [wage offer] is subjecting workers to poverty, they can’t sustain themselves. That means that they make money to go to work and come back to work to be exploited the following day”.

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