Since the past week we have observed a seemingly panic-driven response from employers to the COVID19 pandemic, with scant regard to workers and how such responses will affect workers. We have also observed that the interventions from various authorities, social partners and stakeholders have been geared towards finding a lasting solution to the challenges; whilst also addressing those who have tested positive as well as put measures in place to arrest possible spread. Whilst all this is as commendable as it is necessary, we have now seen employers rushing into decisions that they claim are necessary if businesses are to stay afloat to survive the COVID19 effects.

Many employers, more especially in the hospitality and catering services sectors, have moved, hastily to serve notices, in some instances less of less than twenty four (24) hour duration with threatening ultimatums, of their intention to lay workers off without pay and for reasons best known to such employers; such processes need to be engaged into as a matter of extreme urgency. The silence around the fate of workers is deafening, as is the case around their ability to also survive the pandemic whilst also able to fulfill their financial obligations (servicing of debts, providing for their families and sustain themselves whilst navigating their way through the scourge of COVID19). It is quite insensitive, insensible, irresponsible and irrational, to simply argue that workers must be laid off when there are no means put in place to cushion their burden once they are away from their jobs and source of income.

The National Lockdown has since has since been declared by the State President and this obviously throws a spanner to the works. SACCAWU supports this intervention by the Government as all necessary precautionary measures aimed at defeating the scourge of COVID19 should indeed begin with the strategies to restrict the outbreak of Coronavirus disease spread, need to be taken. We believe it is necessary because the spread of the disease poses more risk to the lives of the South African population.  

Employers have now seen gold and are now even demanding workers to take leave, some without pay, during the lifespan of the pandemic, thus making workers a scapegoat to the challenges brought about by the COVID19 pandemic; if not apportioning blame of them, be it wittingly or otherwise, for the resurgence and scourge of this pandemic on them.

We accept as true that, in circumstances of this nature fore/far-sighted companies should see this situation and engage such challenge as an opportunity for a shrewd investment. The tens of billions of rand the world needs to respond to COVID19 are nothing compared to the trillions wiped from stock exchanges in a particular season. Customers and employees increasingly expect businesses to play a more central role in supporting global public goods, and to look beyond the interests of shareholders alone, but there’s no need to invoke concepts of social purpose or stakeholder capitalism here. This crisis is a threat to shareholders, no less than it is to wider society and more particularly to ordinary workers.

We believe it is fundamentally important that measures to alleviate the burden from working people be put in place and we believe the starting point must be:

1.    Employers to appreciate the National Lockdown as a special paid leave of absence declared by the State President, thus all employers are expected to pay workers during the National Lockdown.

2.    Apply the approach similar to that directed to small businesses in the form of debt payment holiday for all workers. Such debt repayment holiday must be accompanied by a zero interest on the entire period, for instance, 3 months. This approach would free up some financial resources for workers to invest in interventions on challenges posed by the COVID19 pandemic, for themselves and their families. This will go a long way in assisting workers to contribute to the efforts aimed at neutralizing and preventing the spread. It is no secret that we all need money to finance all that is required to stem the tide of the COVID19 and as such the debt payment holiday will provide a welcome relief. Employers cannot be allowed to put profits before people!

3.    No employer must be allowed to lay off workers with no payment, as this is tantamount to punishing workers for something that is not of their own making. Any employer who engages in an act of laying workers off, reducing working hours, etc; to secure itself financially and disadvantage workers must face a stiff penalty or serve jail time like it is the case with those who are found to have violated or disregarded the curfew and directives around trading, especially in alcohol and fast food outlets.

4.    Corporate South Africa must avail financial and other resources from their reserves, including financial, insurance and health-related insurance (medical aids) institutions; whilst the retail and related industries must help by providing nutritional and medical supplies at reasonable prices than is normally the case or no cost at all. Some have even find an opportunity of raising prices on the very suggested sanitisers and related virus preventative hygienic utensils.

Issued by SACCAWU Media Desk

Mike Michael Bonile Sikani