President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: WERNER HILLS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: WERNER HILLS

Trade unions told President Cyril Ramaphosa, during a virtual meeting on Friday, that he should not rush to ease the nationwide lockdown and that any decision to do so should be based on the premise to save lives.

Ramaphosa announced on Wednesday that SA will be migrating from a level 4 to a level 3 lockdown by the end of May or sooner, pending a consultation process with stakeholders.

On Friday, the president met members of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) in one such consultation.

Union federation Cosatu general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali, who serves as organised labour’s overall convener at Nedlac, said Ramaphosa, who chaired the meeting, was told that the “question of protecting lives is sacrosanct”.

“We felt that whatever we do, we shouldn’t compromise lives,” Ntshalintshali told Business Day on Friday. “We did raise the issue that we are not out of the woods yet, and if we don’t get our act together, we might end up going back to level 5 lockdown.”

The unions are of the view that since the country downgraded to level 4 on May 1, “there have been many reports of infections in the workplace due to non-compliance with regulations, such as social-distancing and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE)”.

On Monday, Cosatu, a key component in the organised labour constituency in Nedlac, called on the government to ease Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, saying the state cannot run the embattled economy on relief grants, the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) and food parcels.

Spokesperson Sizwe Pamla said SA needs to move to level 3 “as soon as it is safe to do so”, but stressed that the move must be guided by the need to save lives and minimise infections.

The organised labour constituency called for heavy fines for employers flouting the lockdown regulations, and for their operating licences to be withdrawn until they are fully compliant.

Ntshalintshali said the business sector should join efforts aimed at limiting the pandemic, and take a stand against collusion and corruption. It also called for a moratorium on retrenchments. He said Nedlac stakeholders will continue consulting on preparations for a level 3 lockdown.

In May, Business for SA (B4SA), a new, private-sector umbrella group formed to fight Covid-19, urged the government to accelerate easing the lockdown, saying this would “enable a successful return to work while saving lives and livelihoods and re-invigorate full economic activity in a co-ordinated and integrated way”.

In a statement on Friday afternoon, the presidency said Nedlac constituencies are working collectively to achieve the country’s earliest possible migration to a level 3 national lockdown.

It said social partners expressed their support for the risk-adjusted approach SA has taken to reopening the economy, “as well as for the original restrictions put in place to give the country time to prepare the health system for the management of Covid-19 infections”.

“Nedlac views level 3 as an opportunity for expanding local production and greater consumption of SA-made goods by consumers, as part of reversing the economic losses suffered during the national lockdown, and as part of the country’s long-term approach to industrialisation and employment,” the statement said.

“The president is optimistic that the work done by Nedlac and the government’s continued consultation with other formations and sectors could deliver an advance to level 3 before the end of May 2020.” 

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za