The trade union response to workplace violence

Nina Benjamin

The trade union response to workplace violence

In 2012, the Health & Other Services Personnel Trade Union of South Africa (HOSPERSA) took part in an LRS and Gender at Work led Gender Action Learning process. HOSPERSA spoke about the high levels of gender-based violence in the health system. The healthcare sector represents what we call ‘reproductive work’ or ‘care work’. Yet, the violence was happening in a sector that’s supposed to be about care. HOSPERSA was particularly concerned that the voices of nurses were being stifled. The profession was under attack from patients and the public – the health minister allegedly called nurses ‘devils in white‘ during an International Nurses Day event. Nurses feel care work isn’t given the importance it deserves – they are underpaid and not considered productive and thus neglected. Nurses acknowledged they’d also became perpetrators of violence. Yet they felt trapped in the devaluing of the profession and of themselves as people and women. HOSPERSA felt the profession was losing its identity.
In 2014, HOSPERSA approached us to assist in finding ways of dealing with the issue of violence in health institutions. We knew we could help because we had the experience and some results working with a community that aimed to address gender-based violence in the Vaal region. We launched the Meadowlands Clinic Pilot Project in 2015, together with HOSPERSA and our partner, Gender at Work. The pilot project sought to experiment at a local level and in one locality, with bringing together the different actors involved in the health system to take up actions that’ll collectively impact on reducing the high levels of gender-based violence in the Meadowlands Clinic.

Health care workers spoke about verbal, physical, psychological and sexual abuse experienced by themselves and patients. The quote below, which is extracted from the resource we produced at the end of the project, captures the state of the Meadowlands Clinic before we began the pilot project.


"These people from the Meadowlands community used to terrorise us. From the time that they come into the gate, they start singing songs because they said our services are so poor and that we don't care for them...They said they'd burn this clinic down with us inside. This came from our mothers and fathers, not from our peers...We did not take this lying down because if they say you are going to be burnt in the clinic and they have done it somewhere, not at Meadowlands community but somewhere else, it is serious."

We hadn’t visited the Meadowlands Clinic for a year because the project period lapsed. Even so, the work continued, led by the core group comprising the unions, the clinic health committee, churches and NGOs in the community. The group invited us to a meeting at the clinic in October and I could feel the difference in the space. There seems to be more care about how the physical space looks. The security people are less aggressive and there’s no sewage spilling. A group member said the clinic was calmer and more peaceful. Some norm change had clearly happened, and the challenge now is sustaining the positive changes. That the core group continued to work together after the project ended is a big indicator for us. I felt proud that the changes happened in the midst of the deterioration in the health sector.

Violence in healthcare settings is increasing

Generally, the sector is experiencing less support. There’s restructuring taking place and jobs are being informalised. That pressure can create the potential for violence. Still, there’s less anger and hurling of abuses at the Meadowlands Clinic. The core group spoke about the things they’re doing – individual actions, which are helping to reduce the potential for violence. For example, the District Health Forum (Region D) sees the importance of continuing to believe in its role as the voice of the community despite the lack of support from the Department of Health. Against all odds, the forum has continued to find ways of breaching the gap between the community and the healthcare workers.

At the clinic level, the Clinic Health Committee, which represents the community, is trying to constructively engage with the management of the clinic when issues arise at the clinic. Previously, aggrieved community members would turn violent, threaten nurses and want to burn the clinic. The church has started running gender-based violence programmes inside the clinic and at the churches. Inside the clinic, HOSPERSA has tried to get the staff to hold a respectful relationship – to remind its members that the people they serve are our community members. Staff are communicating more, for instance, about medicine and staff shortages, to deter the public from erupting. Staff members recognise that wearing name badges establishes a rapport when a visitor in the clinic is able to address them by their names. Clinic management is taking suggestions and trying to improve the service. And HOSPERSA is using the resource that we produced at the end of the pilot to continue the dialogue, share their success and replicate the intervention in other health facilities.

As the facilitators, we made the time to create a space where a diverse group of people planned activities together and valued every person’s contribution. We brought young people who spoke about their unpleasant experiences in healthcare settings. Young people said they felt undermined and mistreated by nurses. The staff spoke about how as mothers it was difficult to shift roles and provide the professional care pregnant teenage girls required. For the first time, the staff listened to young people without being judgemental. The space that we helped to create provided a positive experience for project participants who were then able to counter all the negative experiences.

Workplace violence is gendered

The thread running throughout the process was establishing why violence is so gendered. The participants began to see how care work is viewed as a woman’s work. They realised how gendered division of work impacts the way they viewed themselves and others viewed them. That realisation became key to how one made a personal change. So, the norm change needed to happen not only in a public context but also in a personal context. The spaces helped participants to reflect on how a person is addressing her or his own relationship to power and violence. We also cross-pollinated this space with a participant in the Letsema process who spoke about having a gay child to a very homophobic audience.

The Meadowlands Clinic Project seemed like a simple thing when we started out. We sought to bring people together in a safe space where they felt respected and valued to experiment with different approaches to addressing violence. I feel proud of the positive impact of the project – that the results we saw can be possible in a very challenging environment.

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