How SA companies are failing their employees during Covid 19

21 April 2020 by Karishma Dipa

South Africa’s labour market is notorious for unsafe workplace practices, which have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“South African workplaces were not the bastions of health and safety even prior to Covid 19,” said University of Johannesburg (UJ) sociology professor Carin Runciman, who co-compiled a report into companies’ response to the lockdown conditions.

“It is fuelled by cheap black labour where workers are desperate for an income and often feel like they have no choice but to work in unsafe conditions.”

Runciman, together with the Casual Workers’ Advice Office, compiled a rapid response research report, which analysed the working conditions of 75 companies, ranging from large and small-to-medium enterprises, during the shutdown.

Thirty-five companies, ranging from food and beverages to manufacturing and financial services sector, that have remained operational during the lockdown were surveyed.

The 40 other companies have ceased operating under the lockdown, but many have been found to shift the economic burden onto their workers through forcing them to take paid and unpaid leave.

The research, which is the first of its kind to provide this kind of quantitative and qualitative detail, discovered that most companies operating failed to implement safety measures.

Thirty of the 35 companies did not provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to employees, 29 failed to implement measures to ensure physical distancing, 28 did not provide transport for workers and 22 did not make hand sanitiser available.

While the findings flout the Department of Employment and Labour’s (DEL) directives on operating during the pandemic, they also pose consequences for the health of workers. This is evident in several supermarket chain stores, medical wards and hospitals being forced to close after staffers became infected with the coronavirus.

“Companies who are found to be flouting safety requirements should face penalties,” said Runciman. “They are not above the law.”

But it is not just the provision of PPE that employers are obligated to provide. As Runciman says, companies are required to take wide-ranging health and safety precautions as stipulated by the DEL.

In a DEL circular on March 17, titled “Workplace Preparedness: Covid-19”, enterprises were informed that they needed to take the necessary engineering controls such as installing physical barriers, ensuring proper ventilation and installing air filters. They also have to adhere to administrative controls such as discontinuing or minimising meetings and contact.

Companies were also required to have safe work practices, among these are taking measures to limit the duration and frequency of potential exposure to the virus, such as requiring frequent hand washing, and providing no-touch refuse bins and disposable paper towels.

Runciman said PPE such as gloves, goggles, masks, aprons, hair and show covers, should be the “very least” of all the provisions made for workers.

“There is little evidence of engineering controls or any of the other department-communicated measures being implemented at many of the companies, who were part of the report.

“Workers have the right to refuse to work, even in normal circumstances, if they feel their health is in danger. This is in accordance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act.”

The report said the DEL must intensify inspections and halt operations at all companies that fail to comply with the Act and the specific guidelines issued.

The classification of essential goods and services should be reviewed so that workers’ lives are not jeopardised for the production of luxury goods.

The Ferrero chocolate factory, which obtained an essential services certificate, was cited as an example in the report.

Source: IOL at