Casual workers bearing the brunt of Covid-19 and lockdown

Casual workers demonstrating outside the Department of Employment and Labour in Pretoria demanding better working conditions under covid-19. Photo: CWAO

The pandemic has targeted the vulnerable in society, and the economic fallout is hurting the ‘precariat’ the most.

Casual and part-time workers have been severely affected by the conditions brought about by covid-19 and the lockdown. Temporary retrenchments or furlough pushed workers into poverty, which distress was meant to be alleviated by the Temporary Employment Relief Scheme (TERS) grant. The Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) announced new and more stringent controls to ensure TERS money does not fall into the wrong hands, but there is nothing the government is doing to stop unscrupulous employers from pocketing workers’ money. Under lockdown, casual and part-time workers are the biggest losers as employers continue to make profits at their expense, in some cases even with their monies.

In his address to the nation on 16 September, President Ramaphosa stated that the Unemployed Insurance Fund had paid out R42-billion to 4-million workers as part of the TERS.

The coronavirus outbreak has made things even more difficult for casual workers, Dale McKinley of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) says, “unlike permanent workers who have a particular relationship with the employee. If you are a casualised worker you’re dependent upon the whims of whether or not the employer wants you to work that particular day, how many hours they want you to work in a particular week. You are not covered by a lot of labour legislation…”

As covid-19 took lives in 2020, it also destroyed over two million jobs in South Africa. Most affected have been casual workers. Ntombifuthi Masimini has been working as a labor broker employee for over 15 years but working for the same company Avon in Gauteng. She says that under lockdown, the employer has fired workers as they wish. “They fire you immediately if you ask about TERS money, whatever, and we work abnormal hours from 07h30 to 21h00, and we don’t have weekends since the 8th of June working like that,” she says.

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Under lockdown, casual workers could be deemed ‘essential’, but many of the companies that were operating did not provide personal protective equipment (PPE), nor undertake measures to ensure physical distancing in the workplace or provide transport and hand sanitiser to workers.

Kwanele Maqhetseba, an insourced security guard at Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, says that “security guards are hired at a different grade” even though they are doing the same job as the ones already employed by the municipality. Maqhetseba believes they should get incentives for the kind of work that they are doing: “In situations like this, the employers are supposed to introduce what is called risk or danger allowance in order to accommodate those people who are frontline workers, who are putting their lives at risk.”

In this feature, we look at and discuss the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on casual and part-time workers and what can be done to improve their situation.

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. 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.

Retail outlets especially failed to provide adequate PPE to workers. Collin Tyhalidikazi, a SACCAWU Western Cape paralegal officer, believes employers exposed their members to the risk of contracting the coronavirus: “Workers in retail are affected the most as where they are working in these shops, there is no safety. Workers did not get their PPEs on time.”

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In July, a group of workers led by the Simunye Workers Forum and the Casual Workers Advice Office protested outside the offices of the Department of Labour in Pretoria against what they called the deteriorating working conditions for casual workers under covid-19.

A worker at the Simba Chips factory in Germiston, who asked not to be named, said that their working conditions have changed as a result of covid-19: “After people were retrenched here they increased shifts. We used to have three shifts now it is four. And there are almost 200 people per shift making it very difficult to practise social distancing, especially in change rooms. What is even worse financially, they are no longer giving double rate on Sunday.”

“We were dismissed at work for asking how much we should be getting from the covid-19 Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme benefits from the UIF. First they gave us R1,600; the second payment was R2,000. We then marched to our employer to question this. That was our sin and he dismissed us, thirty three (33) in total. We are still fighting,” says Nkosingiphile Mnguni, a mother of two who worked at a company manufacturing hair products in Germiston.

Mnguni says that now she is struggling to pay her rent. Her husband is a handyman and he battles to support the family with his meagre income.

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