Speaking notes by Minister of Labour, Thulas Nxesi during a media briefing to update on the COVID-19 lockdown measures
Leave arrangements and UIF payments
Inevitably, there will be challenges and the need to take remedial action. This is the case in relation to leave arrangements. As the Department of Employment and Labour we are receiving concerns from workers and unions that some employers are seeking to shift the burden of the lockdown onto the workers, using their annual leave as the first line of response to the lockdown.
We are also getting complaints from workers that their employers have instructed them to take unpaid leave during this lockdown. We do understand that in terms of the leave determination, employers can compel employees to take leave at any time as they deem fit. However, this is a unique situation, that requires all of us to act in a manner that promotes social solidarity.
As the Department, we have issued a directive explaining the process to be followed, and the kind of benefits employees will be entitled to under the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). We have also announced a National Disaster COVID 19 benefit that the UIF has put in place as an instrument to mitigate the effects of lay-offs of workers during the lockdown.
It is important though, that all parties understand that the UIF cannot deal with millions of individual claims - this would lead to delays in the processing of such claims. Rather we have put in place systems to pay out UIF benefits through companies, sectoral associations and bargaining councils. We are in the process of concluding such an agreement with the Textile Bargaining Council. We would also like to mention that discussions with the travel and tourism sector are underway.
The Department has also engaged the Banking Council to facilitate UIF payments. We will provide further details as the process unfolds.
So we are moving away from the traditional model of individual claims through Labour Centres - which would be simply overwhelmed. It would also turn Labour Centres into virus hubs - as they would attract huge crowds.
We need to stress that such arrangements for group/collective payments require that we enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with employer bodies and bargaining councils that their use of the monies will be subject to audit. This has led to some resistance from some employers. We all need to understand that these are public funds that by law have to be audited. We, therefore, shall insist on the implementation of proper governance in this regard. None of us have a choice in the matter.
I urge all parties to get together and engage so that we can expedite the payment of these monies to the workers that need them. The UIF staff is available to assist in any way necessary. To this effect, we have a hotline number to obtain advice on how to access these benefits and to empower employers to assist their employees. The Call Centre number is 012 337 1997 from 08h00 - 20h00. The Call Centre operates from Monday to Friday.
We would like to express our sincere appreciation to the employers who have already demonstrated social responsibility and solidarity by not only paying workers in full during this lockdown, but also by making themselves available to assist us by acting as disbursing agents during this period.
Firstly, it appears that some employers who are not delivering essential services and goods are forcing their employees to work. Employers are either unaware or choose to ignore the provisions of the National Disaster legislation and regulations which only provide for essential services and production to continue at this time.
In terms of Regulation 11G, this is a criminal offence and puts at risk not only those employees, but all who they are in contact with and goes against the call for as many of us as possible to "stay at home".
Any employee who is not involved in a business delivering essential services and goods and who is forced to work is entitled to contact the SAPS and report their employer. Any worker who does this and is subsequently victimized will be protected by the Labour Relations Act since this will is an unfair labour practice.
I further call on employer organisations to intensify their communication to individual employers informing them of their responsibilities during this critical period.
Health and safety
Secondly in respect of workers who are required to work in this period, employers are required to ensure that the Occupational Health and Safety Act is adhered to in respect of occupational hygiene and the provision of personal protective equipment.
In response to numerous complaints from workers that some employers are forcing them to work without the necessary personal protective equipment, our Labour Inspectors are following up - particularly, at the moment, in Gauteng, Western Cape and KZN. Indeed, a number of retail and manufacturing enterprises have been temporarily closed exactly for these reasons: lack of PPEs and failure to ensure social distancing.
Our inspectors are being accompanied by SAPS and Department of Trade and Industry officials. The reason for the latter is that there is evidence of some employers having obtained fraudulent certificates declaring that they can continue to operate as essential services.
The Labour Inspectorate report daily to me on their findings. At this stage, we are urging non-compliant employers to do the right thing. If the situation persists, we will start to name and shame individual companies and branches.
At this critical time in our country's history, let me remind all of us to wash our hands, practice physical distancing, stay at home and stay safe.