Workers and unions continue to be on the defensive under covid-19 conditions as many employers are putting their profits ahead of workers’ health and safety.
The lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) by employers, including government departments, continues to plague workers and trade unions. Essential workers all over the country during both levels 5 and level 4 of the lockdown protested and demanded that employers provide them with PPE. The protests were not confined to health workers, but included the retail, industrial and transport sectors.
Last month, health workers at different facilities in the metro protested against the lack of PPE. According to the South African Federation of Trade Union’s secretary in Port Elizabeth, Mzikazi Nkata, the lack of PPE provision was already a big problem before the coronavirus outbreak that has put a further strain on the ailing health system in the Eastern Cape.
“One of the biggest challenges we have is that covid-19 arrived when our health system was not ready. As we all know, our health system was already collapsing and unable to provide necessities to help community members who are our patients and us as people who work in the health department. That is why, during this pandemic, we see ourselves facing the challenge of not having PPE in many places… People are being forced to wear masks incorrectly; they are told to wear a surgical mask for three days,” said Ntaka.
The lack of PPE in Port Elizabeth led to the closure of some healthcare centres and units.
In the Western Cape, emergency medical service workers based at the Khayelitsha District Hospital downed tools demanding that they get provided with proper PPE. According to Siyavuya Tshambela, the chairperson of Ikapa North region of the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), paramedics went on strike for three days without getting satisfactory responses from the employer. They were demanding PPE like N95 masks and A40 protective suits.
“Sometimes workers didn’t have masks and would attend to patients wearing cloths. They did not have proper PPE and they did not have enough sanitisers, and the vans that they used to fetch and treat patients were not disinfected,” Tshambela said.
“This coronavirus is very scary to us workers at EMS; you don’t even know which patient is infected and which patient is not. So now every patient that you treat, you have to treat them as if they are infected with the virus. It is difficult because the employer we work for doesn’t want to give us proper PPE. When we demand PPE, they say there is no budget”, said Thembinkosi Mdingi, a paramedic at the Eastern Division based at Khayelitsha Hospital.
During an interview with Elitsha two weeks after the protest, Mdingi said that they were still without adequate PPE. Now six weeks since the protest, Tshambela says that the PPE is insufficient and they still have to fight to get basic equipment. “Our stance now is that if the employer does not provide adequate PPE then the workers must refuse to work,” he said.
In South Africa the Occupational Health and Safety Act gives a worker the right to refuse work that he or she believes is unsafe.
In the retail sector which has seen covid-19 cluster outbreaks in the Western Cape, the workers also protested, demanding to be tested and provided with proper PPE. Workers at SuperSpar in Khayelitsha forced the employer to pay for their testing. During level 5 of the lockdown starting on the 27th of March, retail workers were declared as essential workers under the Disaster Management Act. The outbreak clusters were partly caused by employers not providing PPE on time according to the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) in the Western Cape. “The employers were not ready for the lockdown and they moved too late as most supermarkets provided workers with PPE two weeks after lockdown,” said SACCAWU’s legal coordinator in the Western Cape, Bandile Tyalidikazi.
Tyalidikazi told Elitsha that the retail companies were citing the unavailability of PPE and that this meant that there was not enough for all employees to be equipped.
Six weeks ago, Golden Arrow Bus Service drivers affiliated to the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) downed tools after several of their colleagues tested positive for covid-19. The drivers refused to work and picketed outside the depot demanding adequate PPE. According to NUMSA’s provincial secretary, Vuyo Lufele, at the beginning of the lockdown they contested the declaring of the bus company as an essential service. They then turned their attention to making sure that the bus company was providing adequate PPE.
“The fact that those who were infected were told to keep it a secret led to the strike and the increased number of those who were infected as a result. After the few cases, the company did not deep clean and that, we believe, led to an increased number of workers contracting the virus,” said Lufele.
Bus driver and shopsteward, Mzwandile Fena, said that over and above the pressure to keep the covid results a secret and the cramped nature of the area where they clock-in and collect their “waybills” for routes are some of the reasons that led to a spike in the number of infections.
A report by the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Change and the Casual Workers Advice Office revealed that under level 5 of the lockdown, companies were failing to secure basic health and safety work conditions in response to covid-19. Out of 35 companies that were still operating, 30 had not provided PPE, 29 had not undertaken measures to ensure social distancing in the workplace, 28 had not provided transport to workers and 22 had not provided hand sanitiser.
At the beginning of the lockdown, the procurement of PPE for public servants was a problem as municipalities and different government departments placed orders individually, multiplying bureaucratic delays as PPE had to be imported. The National Treasury jumped in and came up with a centralised procurement strategy that would serve both the public and the private health sectors.
At the end of April, South Africa saw a large volume of PPE for South Africa’s frontline health workers entering the country. Despite this, the lack of PPE continues to be a problem as South Africa eases lockdown regulations that allow for different sectors to go back to the “new normal”.