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Covid-19: Unions to meet ministers to work out a strategy to keep employees safe

2020-03-16 21:00

Unions to meet ministers to work out a strategy to keep employees safe, especially those in health, home affairs and at ports of entry

As cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus continue to rise in South Africa, workers’ unions are making their voices heard.

They are demanding that the ministries of health and employment and labour enforce more rigorous preventive measures for workers in the first line of contact with patients and revisiting legislation around paid leave.

These demands are expected to take centre stage when the government – in particular the ministers of employment and labour, health, public service and administration, as well as Treasury – meet the trade unions at the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council on Tuesday.

The council regulates conditions of employment of all public servants between salary level one to 12.

Top of the agenda at the meeting will be the possible effects of Covid-19 on the labour sector, as well as discussions on the disputed proposal by Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni to curb the public sector wage bill.

Khaya Xaba, spokesperson of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), told City Press that the department of health had given unions the assurance that further training on the prevention of the virus would be extended to health workers.

This had not happened.

“The challenge is the implementation of the assurance, which has yet to happen. That is why we are holding a meeting with all other departments, including health, to deal with the implementation of the assurance because it is not only health workers who are the first to interface with people coming into the country. There are also workers at home affairs, environmental affairs, fisheries and others,” said Xaba.

He confirmed that the meeting “will be convened on Tuesday as all social partners seek measures to protect our members and employees in various departments”.

Nehawu, with a membership of 235 000, is the largest union in the public sector.

Unions have accused Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize of briefing the media on the state of affairs regarding the virus but neglecting the unions, the members of which were the ones at the forefront of providing help to those who might have been infected with Covid-19.

“The meeting [that unions have been demanding with Mkhize] has not taken place and we must appreciate that since the report of the first case, the minister has been running around, but that does not stop other representatives of various departments from meeting the unions and developing a responsive programme, hence the meeting scheduled for Tuesday,” said Xaba.

Kelvin Halama, spokesperson for the Health & Other Services Personnel Trade Union of SA (Hospersa), echoed similar sentiments.

“Hospersa has called on the government to increase efforts to empower health workers, especially frontline workers in clinics and hospitals, with the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to battle this virus,” said Halama.

Both Nehawu and Hospersa have indicated that they would attend the meeting on Tuesday to demand the provision of protective clothing and gear for health workers and employees at all major ports of entry, all of whom stand a greater risk of being infected.

Yet another concern that has been raised by the unions at the behest of their members was remuneration and how it might be disrupted by Covid-19 if workers had to be put in quarantine.

The Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) through its secretary-general, Riefdah Ajam, had called on Thulas Nxesi, the employment and labour minister, to gazette a special policy that would activate a special Unemployment Insurance Fund.

Ajam told City Press that the call had been made because existing legislation did not make any provision in terms of remuneration for workers who might become infected, for example, during the mandatory 21-day quarantine for workers testing positive for Covid-19.

As it stands, Section 22(1) to 22(4) of the Employment Act stipulates that during each 36-month cycle, starting from the first day at work, an employee is entitled to paid sick leave.

This should be equivalent to the number of days they usually work in a typical six-week period.

This meant that if employees worked five days a week, they would be entitled to 30 days of sick leave on full pay.

If people work six days a week, they would be entitled to 36 days of sick leave on full pay.

When distributed across three years, workers might have 10 to 12 days of paid sick leave a year, meaning they should be entitled to be in quarantine for 21 days. If more days were needed for quarantine, employees would have to pay.

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March 29 2020