Marginalised workers demand better working conditions under Covid-19

Workers demonstrating outside the Department of Labour offices in Pretoria on Tuesday. Photo supplied.

A group of workers demonstrated outside the Department of Labour offices against their deteriorating work conditions under covid-19.

The Casual Workers’ Advisory Office (CWAO) in collaboration with the Simunye Workers’ Forum led a demonstration in front of the Labour Department offices in Pretoria on Tuesday against what they called the exploitative tendencies of their bosses in the face of covid-19. Speaking to Elitsha, the protesters said that even though they understand that the viral pandemic has crushed economies and raised unemployment to unprecedented levels the world over, some of their bosses have taken advantage of the situation to dismiss and retrench workers, endangered their lives and pushed them further into poverty.

“We were dismissed at work for asking how much we should be getting from the covid-19 Temporary Employer / Employee Relief Scheme [TERS] benefits from the UIF. First they gave us R1,600; the second payment was R2,000. We then marched to our employer to question this. That was our sin and he dismissed us, thirty three (33) in total. We are still fighting,” says Nkosingiphile Mnguni, a mother of two who worked at a company manufacturing hair products in Germiston.

Mnguni says that now she is struggling to pay her rental accommodation. Her husband is a handyman and he tries to support all of them with his meagre salary.

According to the Unemployment Insurance Fund’s spokesperson, Makhosonke Buthelezi, they are dealing with many cases where employers have failed to turn over the TERS money to employees. Buthelezi said that they are in the process of appointing a company that will manage their fraud hotline and that is where complaints are being directed.

A worker at Simba Chips, also in Germiston, who asked not to be named, said that their working conditions have changed as a result of covid-19.

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“After people were retrenched here they increased shifts. We used to have three shifts now it is four. And there are almost 200 people per shift making it very difficult to practise social distancing, especially in change rooms. What is even worse financially, they are no longer giving double rate on Sunday.”

The worker said that another issue of great concern to them is that their employer is very discreet on covid-19 positive cases at work; they don’t know, therefore, how many employees are still working while positive.

“Hence. we came to Pretoria to demonstrate, to seek attention from the government and warn them that if there’s no intervention on this, the next demonstration will be bigger.”

Among their demands included in the memorandum they handed to the Department of Employment and Labour (DEL) officials are the following:

  • The compulsory closure of workplaces on full pay where workers test positive, until workers feel safe to return to work.
  • Free company transport for workers.
  • A ban on night work for women workers, and bosses to pay for childcare.
  • A moratorium on retrenchments.
  • More jobs in essential services.
  • Permanent employment of all community healthcare and EPWP workers and the closure of all schools.

The DEL could not be reached to provide more details on issues raised by the protesters. The Minister of Labour has previously stated that employers are withholding covid relief benefits.

“I want to categorically state that this is inhumane and employers who are withholding funds meant for workers must immediately release payments. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has brought the economies of countries to their knees. Workers are the worst affected by this inevitable eventuality. The worst thing you can do as an employer is to withhold funds meant for workers,” said Minister Thulas Nxesi.

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