SA employers must ensure safer workplaces as economy reopens

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country will be moving to level 4 lockdown from May 1. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country will be moving to level 4 lockdown from May 1. Picture: GCIS

The much-needed reopening of the economy should prioritise the basic human rights of the workers, protect their labour rights and never compromise their health, write Thulane Tshefuta and Steve Letsike.

The Community Constituency Covid-19 Front, a campaign led by civil society organisations, is firmly behind the risk-adjusted reopening of the economy as quickly and as responsibly as circumstances permit.

Faced with a crisis as unprecedented as the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, the response of any nation must be informed, measured and purpose-driven.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s messaging and leadership are anchored by a globally accepted three-pronged approach, which balances “social distancing, restriction of movement and stringent basic hygiene practices” because “if the virus spreads too quickly, there are not enough hospital beds, intensive care units, ventilators, personal protection equipment or medicine for everyone who need them”, as he reiterated on April 23.

In lowering the national Covid-19 alert from Level 5 to Level 4, the president juggled delaying the spread of the virus and minimising its impact on the economy in one of the world’s most unequal societies.

It is worth emphasising that this much-needed reopening of the economy should prioritise the basic human rights of the workers, protect their labour rights and never compromise their health
Thulane Tshefuta and Steve Letsike

This should help the economy start its long journey to recovery, adding impetus to Ramaphosa’s R500 billion stimulus package to mitigate this shock that is bound to lead to a double-digit negative economic growth.

However, it is worth emphasising that this much-needed reopening of the economy should prioritise the basic human rights of the workers, protect their labour rights and never compromise their health.

The introduction of Level 4 restrictions, as announced by different ministers in their sectoral road maps, will reintroduce about 1.5 million workers back to their workplaces.

Already, some unions have objected to the reopening of schools unless these are safe for both the pupils and the teachers.

There are nearly 450 000 teachers and about 10 million pupils in South Africa, which exponentially heightens the risk of a surge in infections before we even begin flattening the curve.

On this Workers Day, also known as May Day, it is critical to understand the position of some of these unions.

They are not objecting to protect only their members, but also to protect their pupils and support workers from infections.

This is an example of workers campaigning for their protection in a professional environment and, in so doing, safeguarding the welfare of millions of pupils and their families.

The same applies to unskilled and semi-skilled workers, who command less bargaining power against their employers.

Read: Ramaphosa levels with SA on plans to reopen the economy

Unless returning to work presupposes measures to slowdown Covid-19, then labour, basic human rights and the safety of the workers are bound to be compromised.

South Africa boasts the rule of law and the strength of its Constitution.

It would be tragic for the country to commemorate the international day of the workers by reopening the economy at the expense of millions of its people, thus exposing their families to grave danger.

Economic expediency cannot be used to justify the endangerment of human life. That is not unionism; that is humanism. South African workers joined the anti-apartheid struggle as a motive force to secure dignified working conditions.

Sacrificing such foundational principles would be an indictment of everything good that South Africa personifies.

The scale of such a catastrophe could exceed a scaled-up Marikana massacre with no room for reparations.

Covid-19 will be defeated, and the lockdown can be lifted when conditions so dictate.

This pandemic has taught us, all under pressure, to disinfect surfaces regularly, wash our hands frequently and it even made us to shun physical contact – for five weeks.

How difficult, for instance, would be sanitising surfaces in classrooms, staff rooms, sanitising the taxis pupils travel in back to school – before asking for the reopening of schools, factories or restaurants?

It would be tragic for the country to commemorate the international day of the workers by reopening the economy at the expense of millions of its people, thus exposing their families to grave danger

Already some of our healthcare workers have voiced concerns that they are not sufficiently protected when dealing with Covid-19 cases. This should be addressed as a matter of urgency.

While we are optimistic that employers will take the necessary steps to respect and protect the workers this May Day, we are still deeply concerned about the informal traders, people with disabilities, small business owners and cooperatives that remain without an income.

These people require urgent intervention from government’s economic relief programme.

Part of our work in fighting for the protection of workers’ rights and incomes, is our call for a living cash grant for informal workers and traders.

The classification of informal traders and traditional herbal shops as essential services would go a long way. If this is done, many families will be cushioned from the depths of hunger.

Workers Day should be about inclusivity, covering all workers – both in the formal and informal economies.

Letsika is deputy chairperson of the SA National Aids Council and Tshefuta is the president of the SA Youth Council. They are co-conveners of the Community Constituency Covid-19 Front.


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