Labour minister lays down the ‘direction’ for getting back to work

3 May 2020 by Ed Stoddard

Minister of Employment and Labour Thulas Nxesi had a briefing on Sunday, 3 May to brief South Africa on lockdown level 4 ‘back-to-work readiness’ as over a million people are expected to return to work this week. For employers, there were enough threats and finger-wagging to set a fire pool alight. 

It is a fraught time to return to work, and employers and employees face a dizzying array of new regulations that have been implemented to contain the spread of Covid-19. Having protective measures in place is clearly essential, and monitoring compliance will be a huge and arduous task. But following the lead of other ministries, the tone of Minister of Employment and Labour Thulas Nxesi’s delivery came across as hectoring. 

Basically, his message was: comply with the “Direction” or be closed – if we catch you. (One wonders if it was meant to be “directive”, but Direction was the term of art used more than once in his statement, with an upper case D no less.) 

“An employer who does not comply with the Direction may be ordered to close their business. In addition, as the failure to comply fully with the OHSA (Occupational Health and Safety Act) is a criminal offence, failure to take the necessary measures to prevent the transmission of Covid-19 may result in criminal prosecution,” Nxesi said, reading prepared remarks in a televised address.

“The Direction contains the basic measures that employers must take to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus in the workplace. Businesses that are reopening must put these measures in place before restarting work,” he said. 

The Direction’s first commandment to employers is to notify employees about its contents. Much of that content is sensible and is there to protect the workforce and the public. This includes screening, the provision of personal protective equipment (PPEs) by employers at their cost, physical distancing measures at the workplace and that kind of thing. Many employers will have to issue each employee with at least two masks.  

Other regulations veer into the “micromanagement” approach favoured by Cabinet’s control freaks. 

For example, employers must “appoint a manager (from within the existing structure) to address the concerns of employees and workplace representatives”. Isn’t that the function of HR departments? And shouldn’t employers and employees work that kind of thing out for themselves? If a company failed to do so, but had a perfect compliance record where it counts, presumably it could face closure. 

The onus is not completely on employers or companies. Employees who have Covid-19 symptoms, but fail to reveal them will also be in contravention of the law, though it is hard to see how this could be enforced. 

Labour inspectors – who now have considerable powers – have carried out 2,226 inspections to date and found that compliance has increased from 50 to 60%. There are 170 inspectors in the field currently out of 200. The 2019 budget made provision to employ 500 more inspectors – why they were not hired then probably speaks to the department’s limited capacity – but the “process is now being expedited to meet the demands of the pandemic. The department is also looking at using accredited, registered inspection bodies to increase its reach.” So it looks like the department will be reaching out to the private sector for help. 

Under the Covid-19 Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TERS), benefits to the tune of R5.3-billion have been disbursed to 98,000 employers and 1.1 million workers. On Monday, R2.4-billion under this programme will be paid out to 29,000 employers and there are outstanding claims yet to be processed from 74,000 employers representing 481,000 workers. Perhaps on top of inspectors, the department could hire more accountants to help process claims.  

“In returning to work, it can’t be business as usual,” Nxesi said. That is certainly the new normal.

Source: The Daily Maverick at https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-05-03-labour-minister-lays-down-the-direction-for-getting-back-to-work/