The Covid-19 lockdown has been plagued by employers failing to provide workers with suitable protective gear while others have been downright breaking the law, say unions.
Deaths of workers on the job to illegal operations and heavily diluted hand sanitiser are some of the issues that have inundated trade union organisers and secretaries during the lockdown period.
"Some employers have used this lockdown as an opportunity to intensify their parasitic behaviour. The management at Samancor Alloys proposed salary cuts to workers, using this lockdown as a rationale, and went on to threaten workers with retrenchments and company closure if they do not accept the proposal. In the aviation sector, arrogant employers used tactics such as Section 189 notices, telling staff salaries will not be paid. This was done by Comair and SA Express respectively," said Socialist Revolutionary Workers' Party chairperson Irvin Jim.
He said employers had tried to force workers to cash in their leave and that there was an "escalating threat of mass retrenchment as never seen before".
"The South African working class is economically marginalised, alienated, dispossessed and landless from an economy that has been in recession for the past two decades. Since 1994, the beneficiaries of the post-apartheid liberation have been a tiny white minority and a few co-opted black faces, which could be characterised as the comprador bourgeoisie. This already failing economic model will only double the number of unemployed people should the pandemic continue at this pace. As it worsens, so too does the super exploitation of black and African labour," he added.
Essential service classification is flawed
In the mines, at least one worker had been killed during the lockdown after reportedly being caught between a conveyor belt and a chute at the Mzimkhulu Colliery in eMalahleni, Mpumalanga, according to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).
Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa said the union "was very disappointed with the blanket allowances for the exemption of specifically coal mines from the Covid-19 national lockdown". Mathunjwa accused Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe of "deviating from the national lockdown measures".
The Amcu president said the union had called for a national coronavirus summit on 5 March but instead Mantashe waited until 10 days into the lockdown to get in touch with the mine workers' unions by SMS text message. Mathunjwa says Mantashe responded by calling for a meeting in person the next day, when he knew union staff could not travel, instead of arranging a teleconference or Skype meeting.
"It is becoming clear that the department is under severe pressure from the Minerals Council to start with a premature ramp-up of operations under the guise of the essential service exemption. The mining bosses want to start working and making profits, and we want the workers to be healthy and safe. We must take all precautionary measures before the workers can return to work," Mathunjwa said.
The lockdown is also affecting other unions. Union staff are not essential workers and so cannot leave their homes. But the Western Cape branch secretary of the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (Giwusa), Abeedah Adams, says the union is being inundated with complaints from its members.
"We have had cases where a farmer gave farm workers heavily diluted hand sanitiser that was ineffective. And another case where farm workers pay R50 transport per day and they are now only getting two to three hours of work per day at less than R20 per hour. Another employer got a certificate from the government to continue manufacturing bottles for baby food, but then instructed workers to go to another factory to make wine bottles, which are not essential. That is what we are dealing with," said Adams.
"It is really tough for us because we, union staff, are not essential workers. Our members must work but we cannot service them when they get exploited. It is also not clear where we go if an employer doesn't comply with the lockdown because the CCMA [Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration] has conveniently suspended all operations," she added.
Municipal and Allied Trade Union of South Africa (Matusa) general secretary Kurt Ziervogel said employers trying to flout lockdown regulations had been keeping him busy. "We are fortunate in that we have quite a number of shop stewards who are essential workers and so we have a constant stream of work coming in from them," he said.
Threatening rule breakers
Most municipal workers involved in administration are not on the government's list of essential workers. "The Swartland municipality wanted to keep cash offices open. But nobody is going to pay municipal accounts at an office in a lockdown," said Ziervogel.
"The Bergrivier Municipality, when the social grants are paid, they actually put staff in the hall to receive payments from the old age people who are in arrears. So they first take that money off and only then are those old people allowed to leave the hall. The municipality wanted that to continue on pension day, but those employees are not essential workers. We had to threaten to call the police. The whole disaster declaration is very unclear as to how you report wrongdoers."
Health and safety was of major concern to the union. Municipal workers in Stellenbosch had stopped working three days before the lockdown started in protest against not being provided with gloves or hand sanitiser.
"They are not equipping workers with the necessary tools and that is our other problem. Surely the least you can do is equip those workers," Ziervogel said.
Health unions have the highest number of union members working through the lockdown. They are vital in treating people infected by the coronavirus but as such are most at risk of contracting it. But on 3 April, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) was forced to approach the Labour Court to compel Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize to supply protective gear to health workers.
Nehawu general secretary Zola Saphetha said healthcare centres may soon be overwhelmed by a spike in infections and patients. Mkhize refused to meet with the union several times, according to Sapetha. He added that health workers need transport and meals to be provided during this time.
There also has to be "a large-scale related programme that ensures that more quarantine beds and ventilators are available, that community members arriving at healthcare centres are screened, tested and there are well-protected teams embarking on contact tracing our frontline workers", said Saphetha.
But Mkhize has not been "forthcoming with such a plan", he added, saying the government has effectively been "paralysed for weeks".
Forced to work in lockdown
In the transport sector, two unions have accused employers of defying the spirit of the lockdown. Two bus driver members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) were arrested in Cape Town on the first day of lockdown after Golden Arrow Bus Services allegedly forced them to work, even though buses were not then on the list of essential services.
"Both of these drivers were following the instructions of management and driving buses, which were full to capacity, in direct contravention of the call to implement social distancing. The management of Golden Arrows are like vultures who feed off the suffering of the working class. Instead of playing their role and helping the government to defeat the spread of the virus, they are forcing workers into the street," said Numsa regional secretary Vuyo Lefele.
Lefele said the matter had been resolved by day six, after the government declared that buses could run at 50% capacity and Golden Arrow had backed off from forcing its workers to take leave.
Numsa took samples of the sanitiser with which Golden Arrow was spraying its buses to have it tested, said Lefele. "They claim this sanitiser kills the coronavirus for 12 hours and we want experts to confirm that," he said.
Numsa has received retrenchment notices for workers in the transport sector during the lockdown. Union spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola said Comair gave notice on 1 April that about 200 workers would be retrenched. She said the airline was using the Covid-19 pandemic to justify restructuring the company by saying it could not afford the lockdown.
Anglo American's Kumba Iron Ore mine in the Northern Cape was allowed to reopen at 50% capacity during the lockdown, according to the United National Transport Union (Untu), even though it is not an essential service. The Oppenheimer family owns the mine. The reopening meant that the Transnet iron ore rail line also had to reopen and railway workers had to return to work.
"Untu believes this decision is putting the lives of those who have no choice but to start working again and their loved ones at home at risk for a service that is non-essential," said Untu general secretary Steve Harris.
Trouble with UIF payments
A key problem for unions and worker advice centres has been the amount of time spent trying to access funds from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), which are supposed to be paid out through the Covid-19 Temporary Relief Scheme to workers who have been laid off under the lockdown. When New Frame interviewed Lefele, he was busy driving Numsa members to their employers' homes so that they could sign their UIF forms.
The Germiston-based Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO) said it had already received calls from dozens of workers complaining that employers were closing down their factories without applying for the UIF grant.
"In a number of cases in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape, workers had been sent by their employers to the Department of Labour, who turned them away. When they returned to their workplaces, they were closed and their employers were uncontactable," said Lynford Dor from the CWAO.
Dor said a key problem for workers was that the government's Covid-19 temporary relief scheme wanted employers to apply for the funds for their temporarily laid off workers, but did not compel employers to do so. "The ability for workers to access relief from the UIF depends entirely on the goodwill of employers," he said.
A November 2019 audit by the Department of Employment and Labour found that 68.5% of employers had not complied with UIF requirements. The CWAO says there are many cases where employers have deducted UIF contributions from workers' salaries but not paid these contributions to the UIF. These workers will lose out completely because their "employers have illegally absconded from their duty to pay UIF contributions over the years. This is a widespread problem, especially for workers in already vulnerable forms of employment," said Dor.
The CWAO said it is important to remember that the UIF fund is "not even state money, it is workers' savings. So, while the government not only relies on workers in essential services to save us from the crisis, it has also decided to use workers' money to finance its lockdown."
The CWAO has also begun "naming and shaming" companies who have breached the lockdown. "Production continues at Mister Sweet. As a food company, they are allowed to operate as an 'essential service'. The employer is not providing hand sanitiser or safe transport. Workers who do not want to risk their lives to produce sweets are being told 'no work, no pay'," said Dor.