Khayelitsha Spar agrees to test workers for COVID-19 after they down tools

Spar workers at the Khayelitsha Mall demand to be tested for Covid-19 after two of their colleagues tested positive. Archive photo by Lilita Gcwabe

Deemed as essential workers under the Disaster Management Act, retail workers are getting infected by the coronavirus and they continue to work without medical aid and other benefits.

The Superspar store at Khayelitsha Mall has agreed to test all their workers for COVID-19 after a clash between workers and management. This follows a protest by staff at the store who refused to continue working, demanding that they get tested for COVID-19 as two staff members had tested positive for the virus. According to a statement by the store, the Western Cape Department of Health informed them that “two staff members at Khayelitsha Superspar has (sic) tested positive for COVID-19.”

“The 2 staff members have not been on duty (effective 7 April and 14 April 2020 respectively). The second patient was scanned at the store on 14 April 2020 and was sent home on the same date for a high temperature. Both these cases were confirmed positive on 16 April 2020 by Dr Hasan Mahomed,” reads the statement that has been posted on the store’s Facebook page.

According to one of the shopstewards at the store, Silulami Masiza from the the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU), the workers are worried that they might have contracted the virus and they want the employer to test the workers. “The workers are worried and they want the employer to pay for the testing of the workers,” he said.

The store says that it has followed and completed all the necessary procedures as required by the Western Cape Department of Health. “The store has been decontaminated twice, at 20h00 on 16 April 2020, and again at 06h00 on 17April 2020 and will be decontaminated twice a week going forward. We have implemented rigorous preventative health and safety protocols, including daily staff screening and temperature checks prior to entering the store, social distancing, the use of masks, deep cleaning, sanitisers and perspex sheet protection at tills.”

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The workers that spoke to Elitsha said that using the gloves and masks provided by their employer does not make their work much safer. “We only got the masks today and we get only one pair of gloves to use for several days. The only personal protective equipment that has been there for some days now is the perspex sheet protection at the tills,” said Zintle Plaatjie.

The retail company agreed to test all staff after they downed tools on Friday demanding to be tested for COVID-19.

Zanele Bam, one of the cashiers at the store, said that observing social distancing at work is impossible, and when two of them fell ill from coronavirus they became scared and demanded to be tested at the employer’s expense. “Our canteen is small; we literally sit on top of each other during lunch times. The workers that have tested positive have also been there at the canteen with us,” she said.

After the Spar staff refused to work, the employer got “agency workers” to replace them and they said this stirred anger among them. They went to the store and demanded a meeting with the manager and that the store be closed.

“The manager was threatening to fire all of us and that is when the workers stormed the store. But we managed to agree that we will create a Whatsapp group and have meetings with management. Otherwise, the store is closed for now,” said Plaatjie.

Plaatjie said that their employer has imposed terms of work for the lockdown period that will see the days they do not work get docked from their annual leave. “We are deemed as essential workers and we have made lots of money for the company during this lockdown but there has been no incentive for the workers. Instead, they have formed teams and we will work for few days and take some days off from our annual leave. They only care about making profits and do not care about us. In the first week of lockdown we had no transport and some had to walk as far as Mfuleni to get to work,” she said.

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The store will be closed over the weekend and will be re-opened on Monday. All staff at the store who worked at the same time as the two infected staff members were on duty, and those who were in contact with them for more than 15 minutes, were identified on Thursday and sent home to self-isolate for 14 days. “High risk staff members (pregnant) have also been sent home,” reads the statement from the store management.

According to a press statement by the Western Cape Premier, Allan Winde, “As of 00h01 on 17 April, the Western Cape has recorded 743 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection” and Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha districts have 22 and 31 confirmed cases respectively.”

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