Companies are failing workers during Covid-19 lockdown: report

10 April 2020 - 09:02
Image: Jozef Polc/

Companies that are operating during the national lockdown are largely failing to provide basic or adequate health and safety measures.

The majority of the companies that have closed in compliance with the lockdown have forced workers to take paid and unpaid leave, instead of applying for assistance from the labour and employment department.

These findings are contained in a rapid response research report, co-produced by the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Change and the Casual Workers Advice Office.

The report looks at how employers are responding to the current conditions of the lockdown, which President Cyril Ramaphosa announced will last until April 16.

The report is based on an analysis of 75 companies, ranging from large to small-to-medium enterprises. Thirty-five of the companies analysed remain operational, while 40 have ceased operating under the lockdown.

Out of 35 the companies that were operating, the report found 30 had not provided personal protective equipment, 29 had not undertaken measures to ensure social distancing in the workplace, 28 had not provided transport to workers and 22 had not provided hand sanitiser.

The report said even in cases where sanitiser was being provided, often the supply was insufficient or intermittent.

The report said in some cases, employers appeared to be making arbitrary rules as to what health and safety measures they were putting in place, contrary to the labour department guidelines.

One worker told the researchers: “He [the employer] does not provide us with mask and gloves. He told us it is not supposed to be used, according to him. The only thing they are providing is sanitisers.”

Of the companies that have ceased operations, only nine out of 40 companies have applied to the Covid-19 Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (C19 TERS), the scheme that will pay employers the cost of employees' salaries for up to three months.

The benefit payable comes from the national disaster fund, and is delinked from the usual Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) benefits.

The report found that most employers were shifting the economic burden of the crisis onto their workers by forcing them to take paid and unpaid leave.

The report said to benefit from this scheme, companies can only apply if they have registered their workers with the UIF.

“Unfortunately, a significant number of employers are failing to register and pay their workers UIF benefits, as required by law.”

The report also found that some companies that may be categorised as essential services, particularly in the food and beverage and chemical sectors, produced non-essential and luxury goods that are not required in the fight against the virus.

It said at these companies, continued production risked the lives of workers unnecessarily.

The report recommended that the department of employment and labour should intensify inspections and halt operations at all companies that fail to comply with the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the specific guidelines that have been issued in response to the risks posed by Covid-19.

The report also recommended that the department should prioritise inspections at large workplaces where workers were most at risk.

It also said the classification of essential goods and services should be reviewed so that workers' lives are not jeopardised for the production of luxury goods.

The report recommended that employers be compelled to apply for the C19 TERS if they are unable to pay salaries to workers during the lockdown period.

The report also said the C19 TERS fund should be extended to all workers, regardless of whether their employer has made contributions to the fund or not.