I am Stoney – I am strong

I am Stoney – I am strong

Vuyokazi Gladys Sithole | Amandla 71/72 | September 2020

My name is Stoney. I work at Groote Schuur hospital. My full name is Vuyokazi Gladys Sithole. I have been working at Groote Schuur since 1988 as a cleaner. Now I serve as a supervisor for cleaning.

I was born in 1956. I live in Khayelitsha with my granddaughter who I care for. She is 13 years old. Stoney is my nickname. It was given to me by my father because he said I was a strong girl. I was his rock. I have been a member of the union almost from day one when I started at Groot Schuur. 

Cleaning is essential

Cleaners at the hospital do critical work for the doctors but mainly for the nurses. We have to sanitise and clean everything, from the door-handles to the toilets. It is worse now because from March 2020 we are faced with the coronavirus. You can imagine now under Covid-19 how important our work is. I know I am not a doctor or nurse, but the work we do as cleaners is very important. It is life and death work. It’s mostly women doing this important work, but we are not seen. We deserve to be noticed. The hospitals would collapse without us.

And yet our situation as cleaners is very difficult. We are not just cleaners of Groote Schuur. We are cleaners from many different companies because labour broking companies also supply cleaners to the hospital. They don’t have the same conditions as those of us who are employed directly by the hospital. I have been working with these workers to fight to have the same conditions as ours. We have had some success – a kind manager, Mr De Jaager, has agreed to provide transport home for workers in the evening, and all workers, even the labour broker workers, can use this transport. But the struggle for the labour broker workers continues.

Trauma under Covid

Now with the virus our situation is traumatic. Some of our colleagues have passed away, some are very sick. And then it’s worse when you are travelling in the morning.

I have to take two taxis. I leave my house in the dark after making sure my grandchild has what she needs for the day. School is closed. I am very scared for her. I lock her up in the house, only with the security of my dog, which will keep unfriendly people away. I come home between 6.30 and 7 at night. I first sanitise myself, take my clothes off and wash myself before I hug my grandchild. It is hard. Then we cook and clean. I have taught her to help me so it’s not too hard, especially when I am very tired. To work under the conditions of Covid is very hard and I am often exhausted, even emotionally.

And we can’t get support from our neighbours and friends. I don’t visit them as before. I told them I work at Groote Schuur and I don’t want to be the cause of them getting sick. So I protect my neighbours and I protect myself. We are reduced to greeting over the fence. Those days of drinking tea and coffee together are of the past.

The virus and traveling to work

The taxi owners have been quite good about ensuring the drivers observe the hygiene protocols but you don’t know about the person you’re sitting next to. Sometimes you have to tell the person to wear the mask and to sanitise their hands. I have my own sanitiser with me. I don’t rely on the driver. As the passengers, you collect the money and pass it on. So you need to sanitise your hands. I even sanitise the person next to me.

Sometimes, but not often, we have drivers who don’t wear masks. I don’t hesitate to ask, “where’s your mask?” There have been times where I have said please stop the taxi, and I get out because I don’t think the situation is safe. Of course that can make me late for work, which is another issue that I have to deal with.

Then, when you get to work, you are more traumatised because you know what it’s like from working in the ICU. You have seen the person that has passed away or is suffering – battling to breathe.

Labour brokers

What makes things worse is that we are working with the private companies. The bosses of these companies tender at Groote Schuur. They don’t care about these women who are their workers. They don’t care when they are sick, They still expect them to come to work. They show no concern for them. I have approached the management to ask can we not treat all cleaners the same regardless who the employer is.

It’s not just cleaning where we have these private companies. All over the hospital there are tenders. There are private companies in the kitchen, for the linen, even the porters. The porters employed by Groote Schuur are few, and the majority are private. I have worked with these labour broker workers and encouraged them to join the union. Many did join, and recently we won important gains for them at the CCMA

What is amazing, it is often the outside workers that work in the Covid ward. The Groote Schuur workers don’t work there.

Getting sick

Recently, two colleagues that I work closely with got sick with the virus. This was very scary as I was very worried for them and for myself. I didn’t know whether I had been infected. Now even though I had had close contact with them, I had to pressurise the hospital to have me tested. In the end I just said I had headaches and an aching body so that they would test me. What if I had the virus and I started infecting people I work with and travel with, and my granddaughter as well? I was given three days off to see if I developed any symptoms while I waited for the result. When I was told I was negative I broke down. I was crying. I wasn’t crying for me but for my colleagues, the ones that I had seen in the ICU and who passed away. I just couldn’t go immediately back to work. I told management I’m not going to work; I’m traumatised; I’m taking the rest of the week off. They accepted that.

My colleagues were quarantined in a hotel in Milnerton. It was difficult because it was hard to support them. You go to the place but you are not allowed to see them. You give your food parcels to the security and you hope your friends get it. Of course, because my colleagues are women and are now in quarantine it means we must go and help their families to look after their children. There’s no support from the hospital, no support from anyone other than those who care.

Some of the nurses also got infected and one of the sisters passed away. But the strange thing is you don’t always know who has become sick or passed away from the virus. Sometimes the family will go to the media, but mostly people don’t want people to know, for fear of how things will affect them.

NEHAWU has gone AWOL

I have to say the hospital management has been quite caring now that we are faced with Covid-19. If you cough, they are quick to offer medicine and even suggest for you to go home. But, I have to confess that even though I am a long-standing member of the union, NEHAWU, we have not seen them. Not even a message to find out how we are doing. They just keep quiet. We know nothing about the struggle for an increase. You know the government has withdrawn from this year’s wage agreement. But the union has not said anything about what they are going to do to ensure we get our increase. It’s not as if food and transport has not gone up in price.

If I was in Parliament I would insist that all the workers in the hospital should be employed by Goote Schuur. All the workers have been working very hard. They have been like soldiers. They should be employed by government, with decent conditions. They should be recognised.

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