‘Worker safety nets inadequate’


The coronavirus pandemic could result in about 25-million job losses worldwide, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has warned.

In a preliminary assessment note, the ILO called for “urgent, large-scale and coordinated” measures to lessen the effect of Covid-19 on the world’s workforce and economy.

The pandemic will precipitate a rise in global unemployment of between 5.3-million and 24.7-million, the ILO estimated, adding that by March 10 infected workers had already lost nearly 30000 work months, with the consequent loss of income for unprotected workers.

The ILO indicated that “protecting workers and their families from the risk of infection needs to be a top priority”.

This requires implementing measures to protect those facing income losses because of infection or reduced economic activity, as well as accelerating the enforcement of social protections through policy reforms.

Robust and universal social protection systems “can act as automatic economic and social stabilisers in the face of crises”, the ILO notes.

The pandemic has exposed the inadequate protections afforded to workers, many of whom are at the front line of fighting public health crises.

Last week, the coronavirus outbreak in Italy, the epicentre of the pandemic in Europe, sparked nationwide strikes by factory

workers who lamented the limited measures to protect them from infection.

In the United States, the pandemic triggered the lawmakers to pass a coronavirus response Bill, good for one year, which would provide for guaranteed paid sick leave for workers. But the Bill will probably exclude millions of workers, because businesses with less than 50 and more than 500 employees are exempt.

In South Africa, trade unions and civil society organisations have raised concerns about the likely effect the outbreak will have on the working class.

Addressing the nation on Sunday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a state of disaster, announcing a number of extraordinary measures to curb the spread of Covid-19.

His announcement prompted trade unions and others to come up with their own plans to lessen the effect of the outbreak on society and South Africa’s already struggling economy.

On Monday, a meeting of the National Economic Development and Labour Council’s executive committee was convened to discuss its position.

After the meeting, Labour and Employment Minister Thulas Nxesi dissuaded concerns about protections for workers. He said existing legislation — in the form of the Occupational Health and Safety Act — is in place for this reason.

He said that any employers who do not implement these protections would be brought to book. “So it means if they’re not doing that and they’re not giving people the protective gear, which they need, they’re breaking the law.”

But Cosatu general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali’s prognosis was far from optimistic. “We are not ready,” he said. “We do not have much confidence that all business[es] will take on these things in a very open way.”

He was mistrustful of businesses, saying they would take advantage of the government’s efforts to lessen the effect of the outbreak on revenues, to the detriment of workers.

One of these measures, announced by Nxesi on Tuesday, is the implementation of “a period of reprieve” for companies, which would allow them to suspend contributions to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF).

“In instances where companies decide to close for a short period as a precautionary measure, the short term UIF benefit will kick in,” Nxesi said.

In an event that a worker is required to be quarantined for longer than 14 days, “such a leave will be recognised as a special leave and that employee will be eligible to apply for unemployment insurance benefits”, the labour department said.

But some have raised concerns that the government’s response to the outbreak has prioritised the protection of big business in the wake of the global economic crisis, instead of taking bold moves that would put social protections above business interests.

Other governments have taken these steps, albeit further along in their own outbreaks: Spain has nationalised all of its hospitals and healthcare providers and Italy has rushed 10000 final-year medical students into service.

A Gauteng Community Health Care Forum newsletter, published on Thursday, says that for the working class to survive the pandemic “the stranglehold of the ruling monopoly capitalist class over the state and over society must be broken. To do this, the working class must organise itself”.

Gauteng’s community health workers will be at the front line of efforts to curb the spread of the virus to the province’s densely populated informal settlements. The province currently has the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country.

The workers’ newsletter outlines seven demands to the government to help them succeed in their fight against the virus. These include the temporary expropriation of companies and facilities that produce face masks, gloves, drips, protective clothing and ventilators, as well as employing people in public service jobs.

“This will also offset the deteriorating conditions of working class communities as the pandemic worsens.”

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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