Coronavirus: Employees can refuse to return to work if they feel unsafe – labour minister

Employees have a right to refuse to return to work next month if they have a "reasonable belief" their employers have not put in place required precautions against the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace, according to Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi.

Nxesi was one of several ministers speaking at a briefing about Level 3 regulations on Friday afternoon. 

Employers must also make sure that all employees wear masks in the workplace, and each employee should be given two free masks.

Those over the age of 60 and with comorbidities should not return to work, said the minister. Furthermore, workers who may have been exposed to Covid-19 must be placed on 14-day quarantine with paid sick leave.

All SA provinces will transition to Level 3 from Monday June 1 when much of the country's economy will reopen after eight weeks of lockdown. Over eight million people are expected to return to work during the month. 

"Employees have a right to refuse to work if they have a reasonable belief that the necessary precautions have not been put in place to prevent the transmission of Covid-19," sad Nxesi.

He said employers must seek to resolve disputes as quickly as possible. If this is not possible, the disputes should be referred to the Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration. 

Nxesi said that the department will rely on trade unions and shop stewards to help address concerns of workers about health and safety with their employers. He said the health sand safety committees must have worker representatives, to ensure that matters are resolved. If this fails workers can also report their employers to the labour department.

Employers pay

"The direction also clarifies that employers may not deduct the cost of Covid-19 precautions from employees’ wages or require them to pay for these," he said.

In order to make workplaces ready for staff to return, Nxesi said employers must:

  • make sure a Covid-19 compliance officer is appointed;
  • undertake a risk assessment of the workplace; and
  • develop a plan for the return to work.

These plans should be drawn up done in consultation with representative trade unions and health and safety committees, said Nxesi.

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