Pretoria News | By Jillian Green
Their arrival was seen as a God-send but now, almost 10 years later, Cuban doctors working in South Africa claim they are being discriminated against.
In fact, many claim they face dismissal from their posts “without any justification”.
And as a result of this “discrimination and unfair treatment” about 150 aggrieved Cuban doctors working in public hospitals and clinics around the country are considering taking legal action against the National Department of Health.
Dr Frank Delvalle, a Cuban doctor stationed at Cradock Hospital in the Eastern Cape, is one of the many doctors who has been dismissed.
Delvalle, one of two permanent doctors at Cradock Hospital, was dismissed last year but took the matter to court and was granted an interdict preventing the department from firing him.
The case is still pending.
“There was no justification. I arrived at work one morning to find a letter indicating that my services were no longer required,” he said.
Delvalle has been working in State hospitals around the country for the past six years and has witnessed the critical shortage of medical staff first hand. “This is a huge problem and I cannot understand why the department is dismissing doctors who are willing to work.”
Delvalle and his colleagues feel they have “become victims of an agreement between South Africa and Cuba that (has) failed to live up to its expectations”.
A statement by the doctors highlights a number of the problems they have experienced which include: the unilateral cancellation of contracts between Cuba and the doctors by the Cuban authorities; termination of employment contracts by the Department of Health; ignorance among Cuban doctors regarding the conditions of the contract between South Africa and Cuba; inability of Cuban doctors to successfully apply for permanent residency; and restrictions imposed on Cuban doctors to write an examination to confirm registration with the Health Professions Council of South Africa after 10 years of service in the public sector.
If the doctors institute legal action against the Health Department it will not be the first time this has happened.
In 2003, the Braamfontein Labour Court ordered the Limpopo Health Department to reinstate seven Cuban doctors whose services were terminated.
The doctors were allegedly fired after a letter was sent to the Limpopo Health Department in which it was claimed that the Cuban minister of public health had stated that doctors requesting SA citizenship be dropped from the programme.
In another case, the Pietermaritzburg High Court ordered the Health Department to reinstate Cuban doctor Raul Rodriquez Vazquez, who was fired for marrying a South African. The judgment implied Cuban doctors could marry South Africans without fear of being fired.
Delvalle said the group of doctors and their legal representative were gathering all the necessary information and documentation before instituting legal proceedings.
However, Health Department spokesman Sibani Mngadi said the department believed it had been a fair employer and had not violated any of the contracts.
“In terms of the agreement, Cuban doctors are employed on a fixed contract for three years. At the end of the period, the Health Department makes transport arrangements for the doctor to return to Cuba. According to the agreement, the doctors have to go back to their country and then apply to be part of the programme again,” he said.
Mngadi said the problems concerning the termination of the contracts arise out of a lack of understanding of the agreement.
“We can provide the documents which detail the conditions of employment for Cuban doctors to anyone who needs to clarify these issues.”
Meanwhile, the South African Medical Association (Sama), to which many of the Cuban doctors belong, has come out in support of its members.
Sama spokesman Magda Naude said the association believes that Cuban doctors who are eager to work in South Africa could be utilised better to relieve the burden on the public health sector.
“(We) wish to see the matter resolved and support an alternative approach of discussions between the affected doctors and the Departments of Health and Home Affairs in an effort to resolve the matter.”
The first Cuban doctors arrived in South Africa in 1996 to relieve a skills shortage in State hospitals.
Mngadi said there were 173 Cuban doctors in the country at the moment. For some of the Cubans the initiative is working. It allows them to earn well above their earning potential in their homeland - and to carve out a good life in the country while they’re here.
The government is considering applications from at least 17 Cuban doctors for permanent residence in South Africa. “The (Health) Department will finalise this matter based on the merit and demerit of each individual’s case.”
The Department of Home Affairs is considering the requests in line with the Immigration Act, which allows for foreign nationals who have been in South Africa for a minimum of five years on a valid work permit to apply for permanent residence.