The rights of workers need to be a priority, as South Africa puts measures in place to stop the spread of Covid-19, says labour law expert.
On Sunday evening President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the coronavirus as a national disaster. Ramaphosa also announced that 61 people are infected with the virus as of Sunday evening. This includes the country’s first cases of local transmission.
The declaration of the coronavirus as a national disaster came with conditions such as the implementation of travel bans of people from high-risk countries such as Italy, Iran and the United States. The president also announced that mass gatherings over 100 people are prohibited.
Ramaphosa has also called for public schools to close from Wednesday until after the Easter holidays. Universities, such as the Universities of Cape Town and Johannesburg, have cancelled their contact lectures until further notice.
But Ramaphosa did not make a call for workers to stay home. He instead encouraged employees to “intensify hygiene control”.
South Africans who work will not be granted special leave should they need to be quarantined as a precaution of preventing the spread of the coronavirus, says National Department of Health spokesperson Popo Maja.
Employers have a responsibility to workers
It is the job of employers to ensure that any risk on workers’ lives must be reduced, says labour law specialist Natasha Moni.
“Employers have to ensure that employees have a safe environment to work in. And employers have to mitigate the employees’ risk right upfront, and initially first before they take greater action. They have a duty to inform each employee of the risk of catching coronavirus.”
Moni says that people who contract the virus will have to use their paid sick leave days to recover, or to be in self-isolation.
“You have six weeks for every three-year cycle. And you can’t accrue it. But it starts from the very first year of the fourth month in the first year,” she says.
The Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA) states that workers are entitled to claim compensation under specific circumstances.
“Workers who are injured on duty or obtain an occupational disease can claim compensation for temporary or permanent disablement. If workers die as a result of an injury on duty, their dependants will also be entitled to claim compensation. Employers that register their employees are protected against civil claims in this regard” reads the Act.
Domestic workers and gardeners vulnerable
However, Moni says the Act does not cover domestic workers and gardeners.
“So for instance, if you have a family that went to Italy to ski, and you came back with the Covid-19 virus, chances are you’ve affected the people around you in your home and in your workspace,” she explains.
“What is the recourse if they catch Covid-19 and they need money for medication, hospitalisation and recovery? Well, they are going to have to look towards family, and some employers say ‘But I pay UIF, why can’t the Compensation Fund pay them back the money that is spent or paid in money for medication?’ It’s just not law yet.”
According to Moni, it is a matter that is currently with the Constitutional Court.
But there’s hope for domestic workers, she adds, as the Occupational Health and Safety Act comes to their defence.
“The Occupational Health and Safety Act does say that every employer must make the environment safe. But if you have a domestic worker or gardener order that does not fall within COIDA, then we use the Occupational Health and Safety Act to ensure that you made the environment safe for this employee.”
Making the environment safe for every employee includes the employer taking precautionary measures such as providing hand sanitiser for workers and teaching workers protocols such as sneezing into one’s elbow or into a tissue to prevent the spread of the virus.
According to the Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel, the government is in the process of getting industries and sectors to limit the spread of the virus through implementing social distancing especially in workspaces with more than 100 hundred people in open-plan settings. Further logistics will be determined after Minister of Employment and Labour Thulas Nxesi meets with the National Economic Development and Labour Council on Monday afternoon.
Patel and Nxesi were speaking at the inter-ministerial task team meeting that took place on Monday morning.
“We want to remind employers that they have a legal duty of care towards employees. Both the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Hazardous Biological Agents Regulations place the responsibility on employers to take extreme measures to protect the health and safety of the employees, and therefore, employers are required to take certain measures,” Nxesi explains.
“But we can’t discuss these measures until we have had discussions with the various stakeholders and also listen to their proposals… We will also be discussing with employers in instances where employees are required to be quarantined as a result of having travelled into different countries or coming into contact with the virus.”
The National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) has advised those who have come into contact with someone that was diagnosed with the virus to stay at home during the monitoring period.
“The incubation period (time from infection to showing symptoms) ranges between 2 to 14 days. If you develop any symptoms in this timeframe, you will have to be tested for the virus,” the NICD states.
People cannot test immediately because it takes time for the virus to multiply to a level where it can be detected with laboratory techniques, the institute says.
Meanwhile, health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize continues to urge South Africans to take preventative measures such as cleaning of hands frequently, using an alcohol-based hand rub or soap, keeping a social distance as much as possible and covering of the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing with a disposable paper tissue. Alternatively, people should sneeze or cough into their elbows.
For more information on the virus, you can the toll-free public line: 0800 029 999, or you can send a message that says “Hi” on Whatsapp to the number 060 012 3456 to get updates on Covid-19 in South Africa. Or you can visit https://sacoronavirus.co.za/.
Source: Health E-news at https://health-e.org.za/2020/03/16/coronavirussa-what-does-the-virus-mean-for-employed-people/