L’Oréal workers demand a shutdown of local plant, citing Covid-19 exposure

L’Oréal, the French cosmetics company with the slogan “Because I’m worth it”, has been accused of exposing its Midrand factory workers to Covid-19.

According to the General Industrial Workers Union of South Africa (Giwusa), management at the plant has failed to mitigate the effects of a recent spate of infections, putting workers and their families at risk.

Last Thursday, the union held a lunchtime demonstration calling for the Midrand factory to shut down until the workplace is deemed clear of the virus.

“By forcing workers to come to work, the bosses of L’Oréal want to force workers and their families to co-exist with the virus,” the union said in its memorandum of demands to the company.

“For these bosses, the virus is here to stay and it must become part of our normal existence. This we reject. The virus is not a normality.”

Giwusa’s accusation against L’Oréal comes in the wake of the level-three reopening of the economy, which will send millions of workers back to work — increasing the chance of Covid-19 spreading in workplaces.

L’Oréal has confirmed that, as of June 1, it has recorded 16 positive Covid-19 cases at the Midrand plant. In response to questions from the Mail & Guardian, the company said it has taken the necessary steps to prevent further infection.

But workers, who spoke to the M&G on the condition of anonymity, said they believe not enough was done after the first case was identified.

The union’s request that the plant be shut down immediately after the first case was reported was refused, one worker said. Although some of the workers were told to self-isolate, these were only workers who had direct contact with their colleague who had tested positive, the worker said. 

“They said that the workers who were sent back home were working on the same production line. But we are using one door. We are under one roof. We are using the same toilets. We are using the same change rooms … How can you say they are the only workers that must be isolated? What about the rest of us?”

L’Oréal South Africa manager Gilles Antoine said that all workers who were on site the week the first case was detected were tested. But Giwusa alleges that testing took place three days after the case was reported and when officials from the department of health were called and the plant was shut down.

According to Antoine, operations were fully shut down for nine days, between May 16 and 24. 

Giwusa points to these nine days — five days short of the maximum Covid-19 incubation period — as being inadequate. “Instead of allowing the 14 days to expire, the company forced the workers to go for a retest, this time at a private facility, just to make sure that workers come back to work,” the union said in its memorandum.

Antoine said the tests were conducted by Lancet Laboratories, which he noted is “a government-approved private testing facility and a leading pathology laboratory operating throughout Africa”.

The worker told the M&G that they were “rushed” to get tested privately because of the backlog of public test results. 

“That is all the company wants. They want us to work … The company does not care about our lives. What they care most about is the production,” the worker said. “So now we are still working because we fear for our jobs.”

According to Giwusa, the contract workers brought in to replace infected workers were not tested before their arrival at the plant. 

Six of the 16 Covid-19 cases at L’Oréal involve contract workers. Antoine said, however, that all workers who commenced work on May 25 were requested to comply with the ongoing precautionary health and safety measures, including thermal screening.

He said workers were never “forced” to return to work. 

“We shut down our operations for nine days to deep-clean and sanitise the factory. We have put in place all the necessary measures to ensure the health and safety of all the colleagues and the workplace before resuming the operations, including testing 100% of our employees and contractors,” he said, adding that operations resumed only after getting the go-ahead from the regional departments of labour and health.

At the time of writing, Gauteng chief inspector Michael Msiza had not responded to the M&G’s request for confirmation of the labour department’s report approving the plant’s re-opening.

As the country geared up to move to level three of the lockdown this week — which Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel noted would send eight million workers back to work — Minister of Employment and Labour Thulas Nxesi urged employers to do their part to curb the spread of the virus.

“We cannot overemphasise the importance of ensuring that employers, both public and private, mitigate the worst effects of the pandemic. We need to change behaviour in response to the dangers posed by Covid-19,” Nxesi said at a National Coronavirus Command Council briefing last Friday.

Warning that more workplace inspections would be conducted in the coming months, he added: “We would expect every employer to jump at the opportunity of saving their company by protecting their key asset — their workers.”

Antoine said L’Oréal has implemented a raft of measures to protect workers and has, “from the outset of the pandemic … maintained open communication with all employees, informing and reassuring them of all the protocols followed”. 

But these measures have not allayed fears among workers about still being exposed to the virus.

“Hopefully, it isn’t the case, but we could be working with people who are infected and we can get infected ourselves,” one worker said.

The worker added that the uncertainty over who else may have the virus is “worrying”. 

“Because we go to lunch with everybody. You cannot wear a mask whenever you are eating. And I know there is a 1.5m distance that we have to stay apart, but sometimes whenever we go into these changerooms, everybody is there,” the worker said. 

“So the chance of more people getting infected can increase in that way.”

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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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