Two of South Africa's trade union federations have raised concerns over government's announcement that public servants must go back to work when the country gears down to Level 3 of the lockdown from next week, with the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) threatening mass strike action.
In statements released on Monday after President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation the night before, Cosatu, an ANC alliance partner, and Saftu have both called into question the government's preparations in the transport sector.
Cosatu said the government and the transport industry had so far failed to present a proper and convincing plan to protect passengers.
"Our trains are notoriously overcrowded, and our taxis are law unto themselves; so they cannot be trusted to abide by the regulations and do the right thing. Workers remain fearful that public transport remains the Achilles heel in government’s plan to combat the deadly Covid-19. Government must do better and ensure that the trains and taxis are ready and will be uncompromisingly policed," said Cosatu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla.
On Sunday evening, Ramaphosa announced that all parts of the country would be placed on Level 3 of the lockdown from 1 June.
Under Level 3, more sectors of the economy will be allowed to operate, while members of the public will be permitted to buy alcohol, fly locally for business reasons, and exercise any time of the day.
In a televised address, Ramaphosa said the nationwide lockdown had been effective in slowing the spread of Covid-19, but it could not be sustained indefinitely.
He said the opening of the economy and other activities meant that more public servants would be called back to work. This would be done in accordance with provisions of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
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Threatening strike action, Saftu said workers would again feel like sardines crammed into trains and taxis, when the country moved to Level 3, infecting each other on their way to "[making] the employers richer".
Saftu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi added that, while thousands of employees had already been retrenched, many workers were waiting for the promise of UIF benefits. The federation also complained that it had not been consulted by Ramaphosa during meetings held with stakeholders to prepare for Level 3.
"Saftu’s head office is consulting leadership and members with a view to filing an urgent Section 77 notice, so we can engage in a strike against the unfolding calamity. We are going to show the president, the corporations and those ignoring Saftu that, even under these appalling conditions, we demand our rights be respected.
"We will be going back to the streets in even greater numbers, as are demonstrators across the world using social-distancing tactics, to protest against the slaughter of our jobs. We are not satisfied being the stepsons and stepdaughters of democracy – we demand that we be consulted on any matter that affects us," he said.
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Cosatu, on the other hand, agreed that it was critical for workers to get back to work, adding that this should be done as carefully as possible.
"We remain concerned that many employers are not ready or willing to ensure the safety of their workers and customers. Too many public and private sector workers have been infected during Levels 4 and 5 because their workplaces were not properly cleaned, nor provided with the necessary personal protective equipment," Pamla said in a statement.
The ANC's ally has also shown its support for its affiliate teachers' union Sadtu, saying it believes that schools are not ready to reopen. Pamla said the federation would continue to work with unions to ensure that "teachers will not be victimised for refusing to perform dangerous work".
Last week, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced that Grade 7 and 12 pupils would be the first to return to schools, in a phased approach starting on 1 June.
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"It is understandable that there is some concern about the reopening of schools,, and I must stress that no parent will be forced to send their child to school if they are worried about safety," Ramaphosa said on Sunday evening.
He added that there would be strict control measures at schools, and water and that sanitation infrastructure had been being put in place to allow for physical distancing and regular hand washing.
"The writing was on the wall that government leaders are tripping over each other to pander to the whims of a capitalist class which has always undervalued the lives of the masses. All pretense that the government runs this state on behalf of society as a whole has been abandoned," Vavi said.