The wholesale and Retail sector: A new frontline in the war against COVID-19 and supermarket workers are on their own

When the Level 5 National Lockdown was declared, a host of regulations and protocols were put in place to address the compliance whilst also ensuring that the national efforts of fighting the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic and delaying its effects as the country continues to prepare for any eventuality. We support all the Government-led efforts and other institutions, organisations and citizens and believe we all have a role to play if we are to triumph over COVID-19 and suffer the most minimal effect as possible. However, the question which escaped our mind was and remained as, to what extent would we collaborate towards subsequent phases such as Level 4 to 1, and project even more adequate measures that can strengthen our united-front as the Nation?    

Having declared profiled essential workers and services to be provided in during the Lockdown, we appreciated that the Government provide food retailing supermarkets could trade provided they observe a series of health and safety protocols as determined by the Authority. Health workers and medical practitioners were rightly identified as frontline workers, and we believe the same identification would have been appropriate for supermarkets based on the fact that in these are workers expected to service a customer base whose status is unknown thus risk infection with every transaction and interaction with a customer. Also as they travel to work, these workers utilize public transport, in which they interact with other passengers, whose status is also unknown. In addition to this lack of transport workers especially women workers are vulnerable to gender based violence and sexual harassment, and as such employers are contributing to the ever increasing levels of Gender-based violence.

At the workplace, the only PPEs provided to workers is sanitization and face masks or shields. Many employers cut corners in terms of compliance with the protocols put in place by the Government and some are even said to be telling workers not to tell others once they test positive for COVID-19. This means the Supermarkets can continue to operate as if nothing has happened thus put at risk many other workers and customers. The fact that there seems to have been a unilateral suspension of the industrial and labour relations regulations, SACCAWU and other unions are placed in a very difficult position and engage from a position of weakness since employers simply run roughshod and the dispute resolution institutions CCMA and Bargaining Councils as well as the courts of Law are simply not assisting, and this works in favour of employers leaving workers exposed!

The biggest culprits of non-compliance are the major retailers and since there is no sufficient capacity for compliance monitoring given that there are reportedly only 170 health and safety inspectors in the whole Country, with workers being “encouraged to report discrepancies”. We therefore call on the law enforcement agencies to conduct an investigation in relation to the conduct of the big retailers, which amongst others are: Shoprite Checkers, Pick ‘n Pay, Makro, Clicks, Spar and Massdiscounters (Game).  Under normal circumstances and in Law, the Wholesale, Retail and Supermarket workers are not defined as essential workers or providers of essential services and in declaring this sector as essential or providing essential services during the current disastrous pandemic, the President ought to have accorded these workers the same protection and considerations as accorded to essential workers holistically, including  that of being in the frontline, as is the case with Health Workers and related frontline workers. It is further our serious contention that, at least the Health Workers are quite aware of the status of the patients to whom they provide care and services; whilst wholesale, retail and supermarket workers attend to an avalanche of customers whose status is an enigma; hence they unknowingly become sitting targets and constantly infected and condemned to fatality that seems to be in escalation; yet unabatedly, with our appeals for attention falling into deaf ears. 

It is no accident of history that workers in the Supermarkets are being thrown to the wolves and left to be ravaged by the disease, all at the altar of raking in profits. More and more supermarket workers become infected and others with fatal consequences, and we unfortunately do not hear the noises normally being made when it is workers in the health and other sectors, maybe because Supermarket workers are not employed by the State and/or have not been declared to be frontline workers. The Government’s indifference in this respect, as well as the inexplicable unwillingness to grant SACCAWU an audience based on our request means we, as a stakeholder, representative and bargaining agent of these workers are not taken seriously; whilst employers are having a field day with regulations and interventions that clearly are working in their favour. With our efforts to secure an audience resulting in futility, we are beginning to consider what other options we may have to pursue protection of our members against the offensive that seems to be orchestrated by the conniving, unwittingly or otherwise, of the state, employers and COVID-19 against workers, who have been rendered defenseless by the regulations that do not expressly grant the unions the permission to operate, service and defend workers in general and members in particular against the onslaught. 

These employers put profits before lives and are not willing to close their stores where workers have been infected. Health authorities sometimes do not take the necessary measures to ensure that these employers do not re-open closed stores without adhering to the required health and safety measures. Our pleas to Government departments including the Department of Health have not been listened to whilst the sliding scale of infections is only escalating at an alarming rate in supermarkets.  

As a committed and responsible organisation, we hope we will not have to resort to desperate measures, like industrial action and similar acts in circumstances that are clearly not cut out for such.

However, if given no other option, we are more than prepared to engage in such unfortunate action!

Issued by SACCAWU Media Unit

Mike Michael Bonile Sikani   &         Lucas Ramatlhodi

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