Kariega’s fired workers suffer ever more in old age

A group of workers who were dismissed in their 40s never found permanent work again. Now in their retirement years and struggling with failing health, they face gruelling poverty.

Wellman Swartbooi, 68, has lost the use of his hands and cannot walk, talk or feed himself as a result of a series of strokes he has experienced since 2013. “He became very stressed after he was fired in 2000. He could not find work all the years. One time he had a casual job for three months but it was not good because he was mugged coming home at night,” says his wife, Monica Swartbooi.

Monica cares full time for her husband with the help of their daughter, Anna Swartbooi.

“My father was a very proud provider. He was the only one working. When he could no longer provide, it hit him very hard. My mother went back to working in the kitchens. We children gave up our dreams of going to university and went out to look for work,” says Anna. “Our government are skelms [thieves]. I want our government to look after our fired men and to help them because they have no money, no employment, no hope, nothing.”

Swartbooi is one of about 1 300 workers from Kariega, formerly Uitenhage, that Volkswagen (VW) South Africa fired in February 2000 after they went on an unprotected strike against their union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa.

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The workers initially won a Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration case of unfair dismissal but the labour court, then the labour appeal court and finally the Constitutional Court upheld VW’s decision to fire them.

Many of the workers were in their 40s when they were fired, and those interviewed say they never found permanent work again. They all lost their medical aids.

Piet Vaaltyn, 62, who had a stroke last year, says: “Us VW strike guys got blacklisted by the factories in this town. We never could get any other work.”

The industrial town has a population of under 200 000 and lacks job opportunities. Even though the ex-VW workers have stuck together, supporting each other by forming teams to drive Swartbooi and other ill members of the group to medical appointments, they say they have suffered immense stress from being jobless.

Kiewiet Williams, 71, became a wheelchair user after contracting leukaemia and undergoing chemotherapy, which he says affected his spinal nerves. A few weeks after the interview, Williams died at home.

1 May 2021: Kiewiet Williams, 71, died three weeks after this picture was taken. Williams underwent chemotherapy for cancer, which affected his nerves and left him unable to use his legs.

He was unhappy he had lost the use of his hands and had not received any rehabilitation therapy. He could not pay for private healthcare.

“I never got another job again and we even had to sell our goods to pay our lawyer at that time. I have no money at all now for my health or for my family if they get sick,” Williams said.

Solomon Marconi, 65, has had at least 10 strokes, says his wife, Ellen Marconi, 59. He has been bedridden since 2017, unable to move and incontinent but still able to speak. He has also had two heart attacks.

“His health went down from stress after he was fired. The main thing that worried him was that I gave birth one month later and he could not provide for the baby. She is now 21 and the other day I heard him asking her for forgiveness for getting fired,” she says.

Marconi did casual work for 17 years after being fired from his factory job. “He couldn’t get another job. He went around cutting peoples’ grass just to put something on the table. We nearly lost our house but God carried us through. I am just sorry that the stress means he cannot pull himself up today. The fact that he can only lie down and do nothing really worries him,” says Ellen.

Struggling for help

The families say they get no assistance from the provincial health department even though the government’s 2016 Framework and Strategy for Disability and Rehabilitation Services said that within a year, the Department of Health would draw up “rehabilitation service norms”, which would list the resources and equipment to be made available to disabled people.

The same policy says that rehabilitation should include home visits by therapists, time at “stimulation centres” and treatment by a team of doctors.

The families say that to care for the ill men at home, they need medical equipment such as commodes and slings. “I asked the hospital and they say there is no such service for stroke survivors. They don’t even provide transport to get to appointments,” says Ellen.

Health Systems Trust, a non-profit organisation, recently found that the Framework and Strategy for Disability and Rehabilitation Services “lacked provincial implementation guidelines”. Susan Philpott, Pam McLaren and Sarah Rule also wrote in the Health Systems Trust’s South African Health Review 2020 that the government had failed to employ the “mid-level community rehabilitation workers” needed to rehabilitate stroke patients at home.

1 May 2021: Piet Vaaltyn (seated), one of the former factory workers, is recovering from a stroke. He battles to walk and speak. With him at his Kariega home is his wife, Beauty Vaaltyn (far right), and children, Pieter Vaaltyn and Michelle Arends

Elma Smith, 58, has to lift her husband Andrew Smith, 57, onto a bucket and hold him up over it while he uses it as a toilet because she has no money to buy either adult nappies or a commode he could sit on.

“My husband can only lie down and watch TV. He cannot talk or work again,” she says. “The stress of sitting at home for 20 years after he had worked at VW for 23 years got to him and he had a stroke last year. I was working at Pick n Pay for 35 years and I had to quit the job to look after him. We are still too young for pension and Andrew doesn’t get a full disability grant.”

The Eastern Cape provincial health department spokesperson, Sizwe Kupelo, says “rehabilitation officials at primary healthcare level and hospitals” do assess stroke patients to see if they require “assistive devices”. But both Elma and Ellen have shoulder, hip and back strain from lifting their husbands without the help of hoists or slings. They struggle to sleep at night from the pain and from the stress of caring for their husbands without support.

Kupelo says: “Those who survive [a] stroke would be referred to their nearest clinics or [to] units like physiotherapy and speech therapy. We do not provide home-based care services, however, there are some NGOs funded by the Department of Social Development. Patients are [only] collected from home by emergency medical services in the event of an emergency.”

1 May 2021: Yvette Geyers cares for her father, Johnny November, who is a wheelchair user, incontinent and cannot speak after having 11 strokes since 2009.

The family of Johnny November, 63, says the government does not provide adult nappies, which, at R800 a month, costs half the old age or disability grant, and that is if a stroke survivor uses just two a day.

Sitting up in his wheelchair on the porch of his small house, November bursts into tears when he sees his former factory colleagues arriving. November has suffered 11 strokes since 2009. His daughter, Yvette Geyers, 38, explains that he is often emotionally overcome by his situation.

“We are really struggling for money. My father has a lot of things he needs, like nappies and soft food. Our lives went downhill when my father was fired. He is our only parent so we had nothing. First our electricity was cut off and then every piece of furniture was repossessed. The bank wanted to take our house in 2003 but luckily the family chipped in enough money to save it. I had to drop out of school in grade 9 at the age of 15 to look for work. I only managed to return to do grade 10 and 11. I must still do my matric,” Geyers says.

All the family caregivers say they want their husband’s or father’s dehumanising situation to be spelt out in detail so the public can see how much the government neglects them. 

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