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Labour minister's plea to employers: Don't shift 'burden' of coronavirus onto workers

Mar 31 2020 17:36
Lameez Omarjee

Employees being forced to work during the 21-day lockdown even though they are not regarded as essential service providers, can report their employers to the SA Police Service, Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi has said.

The minister was speaking at an inter-ministerial task team briefing on Covid-19 on Tuesday. Nxesi spoke specifically on leave arrangements and UIF payments as well as labour inspections to ensure essential service providers are adhering to safety regulations as they continue operations during this time.

The department had received 349 complaints on Friday and 234 more complaints on Monday about non-compliant employers.

Nxesi said that some employers are shifting the burden of the lockdown on workers, when provisions have been made by the Unemployment Insurance Fund to cover costs associated with this "unique situation". "It is irresponsible of employers not to take an option which is going to cushion them and cushion their workers," he said.

Some essential businesses were operating without giving employees the required protective equipment in order to adhere to safety requirements during this time. He said labour inspectors were following up on complaints in Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

"Indeed a number of retailing manufacturing enterprises have been temporarily closed for these reasons and failure to ensure social distancing," said Nxesi. Fin24 previously reported that two Shoprite supermarkets in Pretoria were shut down by labour inspectors for failing to comply with health and safety regulations during the lockdown.

Nxesi added that some employers had obtained fraudulent certificates to operate as essential businesses. So far these businesses have been detected in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal and operate in the retail and manufacturing sectors. "We are urging non-compliant employers to do the right thing. If the situation persists we will name and shame individual companies and branches," said Nxesi.

The minister said that employees who report non-complaint employers to the SA Police Service will be protected by the provisions of the Labour Relations Act.

The department has also received complaints from some labourers that employers have been requesting that they use their annual leave as a first response to the lockdown. While employers are entitled to request this of their employees, the department has encouraged employers to instead get financial assistance through the Covid-19 Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TERS), in cases where they cannot afford to pay employees.

"We are also getting complaints from workers that their employers have instructed them to take unpaid leave during lockdown," said Nxesi. "We understand employers can negotiate with employees to take leave anytime deem fit. However, this is a unique situation – which requires all of us to act in a manner that promotes social solidarity," he added.

He also highlighted that there is a R30 billion National Disaster Benefit Fund, which will pay UIF benefits to help mitigate the impact of laying off workers during the lockdown.

While there will be delays in processing individual claims, Nxesi said that the department is putting in place systems to have the UIF benefits paid through companies, sectoral associations and bargaining councils. The department is in a process of concluding an agreement with the textile bargaining council and he appealed to other sectors to make similar arrangements. Discussions in the travel and tourism sector are currently underway, he added.

The department has called on the Banking Council to help facilitate UIF payments, and more details will be provided in due course.

Nxesi said that the disbursement of these public funds will be audited, which has already been resisted by some employers. "We shall insist on the implementation of proper governance in this regard. None of us have a choice on this matter," said Nxesi.

Nxesi said that the disbursements will only apply to the 21-day lockdown. "People must not to take advantage of the situation… People cannot pressurise us for March salaries. We are catering for the 21 days," he said.

uif  |  thulas nxesi  |  covid-19  |  coronavirus  |  labour
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