Struggling retailers and their workers at the coalface of the Covid-19 pandemic

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Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images
Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images
Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images
  • Statistics reveal the Covid-19 infection rate is very high for essential workers - as much as six times the rate of the country.
  • Analysts say falling revenue for retailers, and 'no work no pay' for retail workers, could lead to a bare-minimum approach on safety standards.
  • Fin24's attempts to obtain infection numbers from major retailers have proved unsuccessful.


When the hard lockdown began at the end of March, virtually every sector that wasn't deemed an essential service had to shut its doors. That's except for food retailers, who have remained open throughout the unprecedented shutdown of the SA economy. Over that time, tellers and other staff that have manned their stores have been among those most exposed to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Matthew Parks, parliamentary co-ordinator at the country's largest labour federation Cosatu, points to statistics that reveal the infection rate being very high for essential workers - as much as six times the rate of the country.

"It is very difficult for retail workers because the 'no work, no pay' rule applies to them and they are not paid very much to begin with. This situation is highlighting the levels of decades of inequality. If you look at the high infection location in Cape Town, it is exactly where you would expect it to be. It's Gugulethu, Khayelitsha, Philippi, Langa and Delft."

Workers in retail trade, hotels, restaurant and related sectors amount to about 2.3 million people of the 10.2 million that are formally employed in South Africa, according to Statistics South Africa.

Some four months later and with most of the economy now open for business, the entire retail sector is now open and carrying an ever-greater exposure to the virus across the length of breadth of the country from shoppers. It's proved a difficult task to manage their exposure as evidenced by the temporary closure of the Woolworths store twice in one month in Sandton City, one of Johannesburg's biggest shopping malls. While online retail has seen significant growth during the lockdown, it still makes up for a small percentage of overall sales.

The closure is no anomaly as many other retailers have had to shut their doors as a result of the highly infectious virus in an attempt to salvage the little business that has come through the doors over the lockdown period.

Retail sales data released on Wednesday showed that retail as a whole decreased by 50.4% during April when lockdown restrictions were at level 5. The decline feeding into forecasts of a double digit contraction this year as consumption makes up more than 60% of the overall SA economy.

For the month of May, sales decreased by 12% as lockdown measures eased with some sectors resuming full trading. Overall, retail sales decreased by 19.5% in the three months ended May 2020 compared with the three months ended May 2019. 

It's been a tale of falling foot traffic, store closures, employee Covid-19 cases and reduced operating hours that have crippled the sector.

At the forefront of all of this are retail workers, who, much like healthcare employees, are considered an essential service. They face the threat of job insecurity while also fearing for their lives on a daily basis.

Matlou Setati, executive for the Food Safety Initiative at Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA) said its retail members, among them Massmart, Pick n Pay, Spar and Shoprite Checkers had implemented health protocols as guided by the Department of Health to ensure the safety of staff and customers and had to report to the department.

However, Parks said the federation received complaints that some retailers were not adhering to safety protocols. 

"We've had problems at some Shoprite branches in the Western Cape where a lot of workers were getting infected and we would often get calls from workers saying they believe their employer has concealed a positive case and the employee was sent home and the decontamination process was not followed."

Shoprite wouldn't disclose Covid-19 case numbers when asked by Fin24.

Retailers are currently not making money so they would not spend or go the extra mile to ensure the safety of employees when these workers should be given the same protection as health workers, said Makwe Masilela, chief investment officer at Makwe Fund Managers.

"They will just continue to do the bare minimum... So, that is why retailers will not be transparent about how many of their employees have been affected by Covid-19 because they do not want to be held responsible for providing care for them."

"We will never know the full extent of the virus in retail stores because more often than not, we are relying on one person, a store manager, who has not been trained to do that job and might not even report that case to head office," Masilela said.

Fin24 attempts to get hold of the exact Covid-19 case numbers from other retailers such as Woolworths and Massmart proved unsuccessful.

The mining sector has kept a close watch on case numbers in their industry with the Minerals Council South Africa recording 52 deaths as a result of the pandemic, claiming 31 lives in the platinum sector and 15 in the country's gold sector as of July 22.

Medical insurance

The reality was that most retail workers cannot afford medical aid and were dependent on the public healthcare system "which is already not up to standard", Parks said.  

"A worker must queue at a public hospital from 4am to 6pm, so you find that those workers do not go seek medical care because they need to get paid for that day's work - further putting other people at risk. And because these workers are not protected, they often hide their symptoms if they are infected because they do not want to lose their jobs. 

"We've had some workers telling us that their colleagues push for overtime while ignoring the flu-like symptoms because they need the overtime pay." 

Shoprite Checkers said that employees who tested positive for Covid-19, or who had close contact with those affected were remunerated according to the company's special Covid-19 leave policy as well as the regulations contained in the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Disease Act and the Covid-19 Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme.

Massmart, owner of Game and Makro, spokesperson Refilwe Boikanyo said 97% of their staff had medical cover, which includes Covid-19 testing and a paid special leave policy for any staff member who developed symptoms.

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