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Covid-19: Minister of Employment and Labour outlines plans for Covid-19 prevention in the workplace

Minister of Employment and Labour, Thulas Nxesi highlighted a number of measures that employers need to implement before they begin operating.

The Minister of Employment and Labour, Thulas Nxesi, briefed the country on back-to-work readiness on 3 May.

The briefing was held as the country moved to lockdown Level 4, which will result in more businesses and industries opening and more South Africans having to resume their duties.

Nxesi said that his department is working closely with the Department of Health to support employers in combatting the coronavirus.

He said they have a direction which contains basic measures that employers must take to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus in the workplace. “Businesses that are re-opening must put these measures in place before restarting work.

“A risk-assessment review must be undertaken to adapt provisions of the direction to the specific requirements of the workplace.”

He said that employers must take measures to protect the health and safety of everyone at their workplace, which includes contractors, self-employed people and volunteers. The process starts with risk assessment in the workplace and a clear plan to implement the measures contained in the direction.

How employers need to inform employees:

  • Notify workers of the contents of the direction and how it will be implemented
  • Inform employees that if they have Covid-19 symptoms they must not be at work. Employers must either grant paid sick leave or apply for Covid-19 Temporary Employment Relief Scheme (Ters) benefits.
  • The employer must employ a manager from within the existing structure to address the concerns of the employees and workplace representatives.

Key things employers need to do to prevent transmission:

  • They must take measures to minimise the contact between the workers and the public to prevent transmission
  • They must minimise the number of workers in the workplace through shift or working arrangements to abide by social distancing
  • The employer must provide employees with information concerning Covid-19 and how to prevent its transmission
  • They must report any diagnosis of Covid-19 at work to the Department of Health and the Department of Employment and Labour. They must also investigate the cause and take appropriate measures.
  • They must support any contact tracing measures initiated by the Department of Health
  • Workplaces must be arranged to ensure a minimum of 1.5 metres between workers. If this is not practical, physical barriers must be erected and workers must be supplied, free of charge, with the appropriate personal protective equipment.
  • Social distancing must be implemented in all common areas in and around the workplace
  • Every workplace must be well ventilated to reduce the viral load
  • Employers must keep up to date with agencies such as the National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the National Institute for Occupational Health on the appropriate steps to take to prevent transmission in workplaces
  • In relation to enforcement, labour inspectors are empowered to promote and monitor and enforce compliance. Any employer who doesn’t comply may be ordered to close their business.

What employers must do if someone in the workplace contracts Covid-19:

  • Employers must screen workers for symptoms of Covid-19 at the time that they report for work. This includes fever, coughing, sore throat, redness of eyes or shortness of breath, body aches, loss of smell or taste, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fatigue and weakness or tiredness. Workers should immediately inform their employer if they experience any of these symptoms while at work.
  • Workers with symptoms must be placed in isolation and arrangements made for their safety or safe transport for a medical examination or self-isolation.
  • Shops, or other places which the public have access to, must screen all persons entering the workplace for symptoms
  • Employees who have recovered from Covid-19 may return to work after a medical evaluation and subject to ongoing monitoring

Sanitisers and disinfectants:

  • Employers must provide sufficient quantities of hand sanitiser with at least 70 per cent alcohol content
  • Employers must ensure work surfaces, equipment and common areas such as toilets, door handles and shared equipment are regularly disinfected
  • They must provide adequate facilities for handwashing with soap and clean water and paper towels
  • Workers must wear masks at work and employers must require members of the public entering the workplace to wear masks
  • Employers must provide each employee, free of charge, with at least two cloth masks to wear while at work or commuting. These must be suitable for washing and drying.
  • Employers are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Where the risk assessment indicates, workers must be provided with alternative, appropriate PPE such as an N95 or N97 mask to provide a greater level of protection.

Inspections of workplaces:

Nxesi said that, to date, labour inspectors have carried out over 2 000 inspections, which include public sector premises and health facilities. “The rate of compliance by employers has increased from 50 per cent to 60 per cent over the lockdown.”

He added that inspectors informed him that basic hygiene measures and PPE are increasingly evident in most workplaces. There are 170 inspectors currently in the field who are experienced and qualified and used to working with hazardous materials. “In the 2019 budget, provision was made to employ an additional 500 inspectors. The process is now being expedited to meet the demands of the pandemic.

“It would be impossible to inspect every one of the 1.8 million businesses, therefore, inspectors rely on the support of individual workers, unions and socially responsible employers in providing vital information which in turn allows inspectors to focus on hotspots.”

He highlighted that it is in everyone’s interest to ensure they remain safe and curb the spread of the coronavirus. “The Covid-19 virus has highlighted a number of gaps in our social provision in relation to the UIF, there are important groups that are not covered, such as the informal sector and freelance workers.

“This matter is firmly on the agenda of the department, at this point, the responsibility remains within the realm of social development and the presidents undertaking to expand the social security safety net.”

Take caution – protect workers:

Tibor Szana, the chief inspector with the Department of Labour, said, “It is better to err on the side of caution and protect your workers. We find one worker being infected and we had a workplace where they went from one person infected to 60 which means, in essence, that you closed your own workplace.”

Szana added, “We are available as inspectors to assist you before you pick up problems but we are still finding employers where there is absolutely no knowledge whatsoever around this and we close the employers down until they are able to fulfil their obligations.”

The process of UIF claims:

Deputy Minister of Employment and Labour ​​​Boitumelo Moloi explained that they have repurposed the UIF to facilitate the flow of benefit payments to mitigate the effects of lay-offs.

She added they have shifted from individual working claims to mass distribution hubs. There have been Covid-19 Ters benefits of R5.3 billion paid out through bargaining councils and employers, reaching 98 000 employers and 1.1 million workers. “A further R2.4 billion in Covid Ters benefits has been cleared for payment as of 4 May to 29 000 employers which will translate to 462 000 employees who will benefit.”

“There are still a number of outstanding claims that need to be processed from 74 000 employers representing 481 000 workers… You will be happy to know that Sars has already validated 87 per cent of these claims and this shall be paid in the coming week.”

She added that ordinary UIF claims have also been processed during this period. “Those who claimed before the lockdown have continued to receive their claims.”

Moloi added that R13.8 billion of investment funds has been freed up to strengthen the liquidity of the fund. She encouraged employers to claim en masse for their employees rather than employees applying individually.

Assistance for domestic workers:

For domestic workers, Thobile Lamati​, the director-general of employment and labour, said that the department has been concerned about them. He said that a company has offered to assist the department at no cost by sending messages to all domestic employers to ask if they are currently paying their domestic worker or if they have applied for UIF on their behalf. “We will be sending messages to domestic workers themselves to ask if their employer has paid them or if they have applied for the benefit. If they have not been paid or have not applied for the benefit, we will encourage them to do so.”

He concluded that they have made provision for individual employees to apply in the event that their employers have not applied.

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