Picture: ALON SKUY
Picture: ALON SKUY

Organised labour is divided over whether SA should go into lockdown as it tries to curb the spread of the coronavirus, which has already infected 240 people in the country.

President Cyril Ramaphosa last week declared a national state of disaster, and a wide range of measures have been put in place to curb the spread. These include regulations restricting gatherings of over 100 people, travel bans, the early closing of schools and time limits for the purchase and consumption of alcohol.

Gauteng is the hardest hit. Talks of a possible lockdown in the province and nationally are intensifying.

Cosatu general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali however does not believe a total lockdown will work in SA.

He said there needed to be food security and  essential services needed to continue working.

Ntshalintshali rather called for more discipline and stricter measures as in fewer people working, rotational working and screening of all workers.

“People need food security, people need to go to the hospitals, workers must be able to assist ... It is easier to say from wherever we are that it is just easier to lock it down but there are other needs of society that are unavoidable,” Ntshalintshali said.

On the threat by Cosatu’s public-sector unions to go on strike if the state reneges on its pay agreement and freezes wages in the coming year, Ntshalishali said if there was a lockdown there would be no point in striking. However, if civil servants did decide to strike it would have a devastating impact.

He said government needed to still go to the bargaining council and continue to engage unions, but that it must not use the coronavirus pandemic as an “escape route”.

Ntshalintshali said Cosatu was opposed to the declaration of a state of emergency, as this would equate to a police state, and workers should be allowed to exercise their rights.

Saftu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said a number of his federation’s unions have already called for a total lockdown, but they were mindful that this would “put the last nail [in the coffin] of the economy and jobs”.

“A lockdown, or even the stopping of the airlines coming into the country and what is happening to restaurants and hotels, which is also buttressed by the panic buying, will lead to a huge catastrophe and we see no action by the government to mitigate this,” he said.

“Outside of the UIF intervention there is absolutely zilch. This is what is keeping us awake at night.”

Vavi said the SA Reserve Bank’s decision to cut interest rates by 100 basis points was disappointing as Sadtu had called for a cut of 5%. “We have called for extraordinary measures.”

He said there needed to be drastic change to monetary policy in SA during this time, as the country heads to a depression.

Fedusa’s general secretary Riefdah Ajam said the federation had been looking at the effect a lockdown would have, especially in the two sectors where its members work — hospitality and aviation — which have both already been hard hit by the spread of Covid-19.

“We are trying to find all forms of ways and means in order to manage this, so that the knock-on effect is not so huge, but it is going to take a lot of convincing and our argument at this stage is that by way of the disaster management act and equally so the special dispensation we have called for via the UFI needs to be activated with urgency to make sure that there is a soft landing.”

She said SA could not wait for any delays in unlocking mechanisms within government because the urgency was now, not at Christmas.

Ajam said Fedusa was aware of the economic situation but had been promoting the humanistic aspect of the pandemic.

“Human lives are more important than any other aspect,” she said.

Fedusa was hoping President Cyril Ramaphosa would give more direction when he addressed the nation.