The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) has seen a massive drop in case referrals since it decided to close its doors to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
According to data provided by the CCMA, between March 18 — when it first announced it would be adapting its operations amid the coronavirus outbreak — and last Thursday, it had received 5 141 case referrals. This is approximately 24.5% of the average number of cases it would have dealt with during the same period last year.
This decline in referrals comes in the wake of widespread job insecurity triggered by the South African government’s efforts to flatten the curve of the virus.
In March, the CCMA director Cameron Morajane released a statement saying that, in the wake of the pandemic, the statutory body would be “doing some things a little differently”. Staff were allowed to work from home and meetings were conducted digitally. The CCMA also prohibited all walk-ins, in effect closing its offices.
Shortly after this statement, the CCMA announced it would “cease full operations and services for the duration of the nationwide lockdown”.
People requiring urgent assistance were encouraged to contact the CCMA through email, fax and its social media accounts “for labour-related advice”.
CCMA spokesperson Amos Tshabalala told the Mail & Guardian that the body has noted a “huge decline in referrals since the lockdown”.
A total of 5 141 case referrals means there was an average of 190 a day for 27 days.
According to the CCMA’s most recent annual report, it received 193 732 in the 2018/2019 financial year. This case referral rate translates to an average of 775 new cases referred to the CCMA every working day, the report notes.
According to the data from the CCMA, 2 939 of the 5 141 referrals it has received since March 18 relate to dismissals, with more than half of those dismissal cases (1 506) having to do with alleged worker misconduct.
The highest number of referrals came from the professional services, retail, private security, construction and mining sectors respectively. The professional service sector — which includes lawyers, financial advisers and engineers, among others — has been the highest referring sector for the past two years.
Tshabalala assured the M&G that despite a drop in the number referrals during lockdown, “the CCMA has remained available to the workers on online platforms”.
“For instance, the CCMA made exceptions on hearing matters such as … high profile S189A matters which can/could be conducted via video conferencing facilities,” he said, adding that one of these exceptions had to do with the now halted South African Airways retrenchments.
The CCMA has also intervened to prevent strike action in the food sector during the lockdown.
Just before the lockdown was due to begin, the CCMA stepped in when workers at Pick’ n Pay’s Longmeadow distribution centre threatened industrial action over health and safety concerns.
The statutory body had to intervene on two other occasions — once in a dispute at a Rhodes Food factory in Cape Town and another time amid a dispute at the Cadbury chocolate factory in Port Elizabeth — to prevent the disruption of food supply as the lockdown commenced, Tshabalala revealed.
He added that, though the CCMA’s services are still available to workers and their employers, ensuring everyone is able to access those services digitally had been their greatest challenge during the lockdown.
The period of the CCMA’s partial closure has coincided with heightened concern over job security for workers everywhere.
A report released by the International Labour Organisation earlier this month revealed that at the time partial lockdown measures had affected almost 2.7-billion workers, representing around 81% of the world’s workforce.
According to a recently released Human Sciences Research Council survey, 45% of the 19 330 participants reported that they feared South Africa’s lockdown would make it difficult to keep their jobs. Just over 60% of those surveyed said the lockdown is threatening their ability to earn an income.
In a portfolio committee meeting last week, Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi told MPs to brace themselves for large-scale job losses as a result of the lockdown.
“It is a fact that a number of companies after Covid-19 might not be able to recover. They might take six months to recover. Some might take a year. Some might not even come back and be able to operate again,” Nxesi said.
“The reality is, there is going to be massive retrenchments. There are projections from a number of economists that we might add another million or two to the unemployment numbers we already have … This is a very, very serious matter.”
Nxesi said his department is considering the likelihood of “very high numbers” of employment disputes being referred to the CCMA. Some employers had already issued Section 189 retrenchment notices to workers, he added.
“There is a lot on our plates to deal with.”