Companies criticised by unions during COVID-19

Spar workers at the Khayelitsha Mall demand to be tested for Covid-19 after two of their colleagues tested positive. Archive photo by Lilita Gcwabe

Trade unions lambast companies in South Africa for their their greed and disregard for workers’ rights amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) says that companies are using the coronavirus to legitimise their greed and trample on workers’ rights. Speaking to Elitsha, SACCAWU’s secretariat coordinator, Lucas Ramatlhodi, said that employers have “struck new gold” with the coronavirus while trade union officials are not deemed essential workers to defend workers from the attack. “We are dealing with so many cases and it is as if the Labour Relations Act has been suspended and some companies want to renege on collective bargaining agreements without engaging with the union. The unions have not been declared as essential services and it is difficult to help the workers that are in trouble,” he said.

According to SACCAWU, one of their more urgent cases relates to the treatment of workers by management, the police and the Department of Labour. It involves a Clicks store in East London where beauty advisors, both union members, were arrested by the police for allegedly contravening the lockdown regulations.

“It is disturbing to note that  the store manager allegedly reported to the Department of Employment and Labour office that those workers were not supposed to be in the store, as their department is not an essential service; based on which the inspector subsequently called the police who then arrested the workers, without question or proper assessment of the issue at hand,” reads SACCAWU’s statement.

Outbreak clusters in W Cape

Recent statistics on the number of cases in South Africa reveal that the Western Cape has overtaken Gauteng, with the rate of infections accelerated by a phenomenon the Minister of Health, Zwelini Mkhize, calls “outbreak clusters”.

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“It is also notable that today the Western Cape has surpassed Gauteng’s confirmed cases and now has the highest number of Covid-19 positive cases in the country. A further analysis is being done as we are observing outbreak clusters in the Western Cape. This means that a large number of people who operate and interact in the same area (eg. factories, shopping centres) are testing positive.”

There are numerous media reports on the temporary closure of supermarkets in the Western Cape where cashiers tested positive for Covid-19. Elitsha recently reported a case at Khayelitsha Mall. According to Ramatlhodi, retail workers do not have the same status as other frontline essential workers like doctors and nurses. “They are not treated the same as other frontline workers under the Disaster Management Act. They are at more risk as they interact with [many] customers who might have the disease or not. Most of them are not provided with transport by their employer and the public transport regulations did not accommodate them as they work shifts,” said Ramatlhodi.

“We have written to the President to raise some of these issues,” he said.

The coronavirus statistics show that the Western Cape on 22 April had 1,079 cases and on the 23rd that number had gone up by 200 cases.

Chemical workers’ union calls out GSK

According to the SACP in the Western Cape, 70 workers at GSK tested positive. Photo by Lilita Gcwabe

Meanwhile, the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union (CEPPWAWU) has also highlighted the difficulty of dealing with arrogant employers during the time of Covid19. According to the union’s provincial secretary in the Western Cape, Chinaman Melani, GlaxoSmithKline in Epping, Cape Town, is one such employer.

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“We learnt that there were five people at the firm who tested positive for Covid-19 and immediately we demanded the company close down and test all the workers. They did not do that and then we went to open a case with the police since we could not get the union officials to go there. It was then the police who got the departments of Labour and Health to intervene. We discovered that the company does not have a risk assessment plan for Covid-19 as it is expected and that they continued to only test few people and not all workers,” he said.

The company closed on Tuesday this week.

According to the South African Communist Party leader in the province, Benson Ngqetsu, who alerted the media to the story, there were 40 workers who tested positive for coronavirus at the site on Monday this week but that number had gone up to 70 two days later.

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