BHEKI NTSHALINTSHALI: Business must accept that ensuring workers’ safety is inviolable
If taxpayers’ money is going to be used to help businesses, those firms need to agree to a moratorium on retrenchments, writes Bheki Ntshalintshali
At the beginning of the year no-one in SA, or the world, could have predicted the challenges we would face in 2020. We were all caught unawares and unprepared for the outbreak of Covid-19. Over the past three months, we have all been trying to stop the spread of the virus, which is unlike anything we have seen before. The reports from Europe and the US have been alarming, with significant levels of mortality and the inability of well-developed states to cope.
This is worrying for SA given our pre-existing health challenges, the poor state of public healthcare institutions and the unaffordability of private healthcare for the majority. Workers in SA and the world have been the most heavily affected. This is a reflection on the poverty wages workers are paid, high levels of inequality, a lack of access to decent healthcare, the lack of nutrition and extreme overcrowding in most townships.
Union federation Cosatu welcomed the lockdown and the speed with which government moved to implement it. It was critical to lowering the surge in infections and deaths, and to avoid the virus overwhelming our healthcare institutions before they were ready.
This was not an easy choice for workers as many companies in the private sector implement the no work, no pay principle. Many companies also depend on daily earnings to pay workers and remain viable.
During the lockdown more than two-million workers have received more than R14bn from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), out of the R40bn that was put aside from the fund to help workers who were retrenched or forced to take unpaid leave.
The UIF was not built to cope with a total shutdown of the economy. Its systems were overwhelmed with the flood of applications for help. Cosatu has been meeting the leadership of the department of employment and labour and the UIF daily throughout the lockdown to address these challenges.
It is now clear that more needs to be done to address the needs of self-employed workers such as musicians and artists, those who are employed on a commission basis such as e-hailing taxi drivers, and those in the informal sector like minibus taxi drivers. We hope that out of this crisis we will emerge with a modern and more inclusive UIF.
The federation has always believed that we need to save both lives and jobs. We cannot sacrifice either, because a poor country is of no help to its citizens. We favour an approach that incorporates both the health imperatives and also protects people’s jobs and livelihoods. These are mutually reinforcing rather than contradictory.
The lockdown was never the solution to Covid-19 but rather an intervention to buy time for government, employers and society to prepare to adjust to a new normal. Covid-19 will not disappear on some randomly selected date, nor can we sustain an economy on UIF and food parcels.
Workers need to work so they can buy food, medicine, electricity and take care of their families. A nation with such high levels of inequality and such huge socioeconomic disparities cannot sustain a prolonged lockdown. This is why the federation fully supports President Cyril Ramaphosa’s statement to prepare the country for a new normal under the cloud of the Covid-19 virus.
The challenge for all of us is to ensure we are ready for this new normal. All workplaces must have clear health and safety plans. These must be engaged with workers. They must include the provision of personal protective equipment for workers, social distancing, testing of workers, screening of customers, other protective equipment, regular sanitisation — including after infections — and shift systems and working from home where possible. Similar plans are needed for schools and tertiary educational institutions.
Our weakest link remains the public transport system. Millions of urban workers depend upon Metrorail and taxis to get to work and, similarly, pupils use it to get to schools. But the public system is badly overcrowded and the levels of lawlessness and poor hygiene conditions on our trains is a matter of extreme concern. The commitment of taxi operators to enforce health and safety plans given their long-established traditions of flouting laws is also worrying.
There will be no point in maintaining safe workplaces if workers are going to be infected on taxis and trains. This matter needs urgent intervention from government working with stakeholders in the sector. No employer or transport owner must be allowed to operate if they cannot meet the health and safety guidelines, and those that do not comply must be shut down.
Some employers have complained that they cannot afford temperature scanners and others lament that they do not have staff members available to do screening. Complaining may be therapeutic, but it is not a solution. Things cannot be allowed to operate the way they have been, where many employers have been failing to comply with the law, especially the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
We expect the employment and labour minister to try to balance the uneven workplace relations by issuing a directive to allow workers to exercise their right to refuse dangerous work if there are not enough PPEs at a workplace.
The role of labour inspectors will become increasingly important as more sectors of the economy are opened, and the department of employment and labour must increase the number of labour inspectors on the ground. The lives of workers will depend on the proactive response of labour inspectors. The federation welcomes the department’s plans to appoint an additional 500 labour inspectors in the next few weeks.
Business must accept that ensuring the safety of workers and customers is non-negotiable. The federation also expects government to be proactive and creative. It must see what resources can be mobilised to help struggling sectors and what incentives are put in place.
Workers cannot afford to bear the brunt of further retrenchments to add to the 10-million already unemployed. Workers have already provided leadership by pushing for the release R40bn from the UIF to keep workers and companies afloat and stem the tide of retrenchments.
As workers we expect both government and big business to come to the party and play their role. What we will not allow is for the stimulus packages to be freely given to employers, so they can take us back to our “normal” situation. Nothing has been normal for workers. Rampant exploitation, callous retrenchments and huge indebtedness are not normal.
If taxpayers’ money is going to be used to bail out and help businesses, we need all those companies that are going to receive the money to agree to a moratorium on retrenchments. We cannot go out and borrow money from lenders outside the country while we maintain loose exchange controls that allow billions to be taken out of the country daily. Government cannot give tax breaks, incentives and bailouts to companies and still fail to tax the billions that are sitting in company bank accounts.
Lastly, acknowledging that retrenchments are inevitable, we expect the labour minister to use the powers of his office to increase the statutory severance given to workers who are being retrenched. The current severance pay package of one week per year of service is grossly inadequate and must be increased as a matter of urgency.
This minimum severance pay is set by section 41 (2) of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and has remained unchanged since statutory minimum severance pay was introduced by the Labour Relations Act in 1996. The failure to set an adequate level of severance pay in statute undermines the job security of workers and enables employers to retrench at will.
These are the minimum expectations for workers as we navigate an uncertain future. We will co-operate, be constructive and be open to trade-offs, but there are some things that are non-negotiable. Workers will not be used as scapegoats for this crisis, as has happened before. We hope all the social partners will approach this period with open minds and think about the bigger picture rather than focusing on narrow self-interest.
• Ntshalintshali is Cosatu general secretary.
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