The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has welcomed the re-opening of the economy but raised serious concerns regarding the safety and welfare of workers as South Africa moves to level 3 of the national lockdown. The Union repeats its call for universal testing of workers following the shock announcement of 164 new Covid-19 infections over the weekend. AMCU demands that employers must ensure the safety of their workers and pay their salaries as we enter level 3 of the national lockdown.
On 24 May 2020, Honourable State President Cyril Ramaphosa officially confirmed that the Covid-19 coronavirus national lockdown regulations would relax to level 3 as of 1 June 2020. Some of the relaxations announced focus on re-opening several sectors of the economy to 100% of capacity, including mining, manufacturing and related industries.
“As AMCU, we welcome the announcement that more industries can re-open and that workers can go back to work”, said AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa. “It is a fact that many workers are facing economic hardship as a result of the national lockdown, and it is important that they are enabled to return to work so that they can look after their families and their loved ones”, Mathunjwa said.
AMCU has consistently supported the re-opening of industry, but on the firm condition that workplaces must be made safe and that there should be national minimum standards in place to protect workers and communities. When the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) attempted to avoid the setting of minimum standards, AMCU took it to court and they were ordered to issue national minimum standards for the mining and energy sector by 18 May 2020. These standards, in the form of a national Code of Practice (COP) in terms of section 9 of the Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA), were duly gazetted on 18 May 2020 and are now in force and compulsory for all employers in the sector.
“Even though the DMRE did not include all of our proposals and those of the academic experts we enlisted to advise them, we feel that the court ruling was a victory for workers”, said Mathunjwa. “As least we could play a part in putting in place something that was not there before”, he added.
One of the items on which the Minerals Council and DMRE did not want to budge during the talks, was the issue of testing. While AMCU has consistently called for the testing of all workers, the official stance of government and employers has been to only test workers who fail the screening process. Even though AMCU warned that screening alone would have significant shortcomings, especially when workers do not present symptoms, there was no appetite to change the current approach by employers.
On 17 May 2020, when AMCU became aware of 19 new infections at Impala’s Marula mine in Limpopo, the Union made a clarion call for universal testing at mines. AMCU appealed to employers to refrain from saving the costs of testing all employees, estimated to cost between R800 and R1 000 per employee. This was followed up by a letter to all employers in the country, at the approximately 300 mining and non-mining companies where AMCU is recognised, pleading with them to ensure the sustainability of their operations by testing all workers, especially those who are already on duty. In the letter, AMCU warned employers that a failure to do so may result in an explosion of infections in high-risk working environments like those in mining and manufacturing.
Unfortunately, AMCU’s warning seems to have been true, as the latest reports include a total of 164 workers found to be infected at Anglo Gold Ashanti’s Mponeng operations on the West Rand. Most concerning of all, is the fact that most of these workers were asymptomatic and therefore passed the screening process.
“As AMCU we are very concerned about these comrades and their health and safety”, said Mathunjwa. “We wish them a full and speedy recovery”, he added. “Just imagine how many co-workers they have been in contact with, and how many family members and loved ones in their communities have now been infected”, Mathunjwa said.
In its letter to employers, AMCU made the argument that, while it is known that the Covid-19 coronavirus takes up to five (5) days to incubate, it is also found that individuals can remain asymptomatic for up to fourteen (14) days. It is specifically such asymptomatic persons who pose the greatest danger, especially in the high-risk working places of mining and related environments.
“Even though we welcome the announcement by the honourable State President, there are some questions that beg answers”, he said. “Are the companies ready? Can the guarantee the safety of workers? Are the provinces ready? Are public health facilities ready?”, he asked. “We simply don’t know, and we believe the worst is yet to come”, he added.
“It is also important to focus on the livelihoods of workers”, said Mathunjwa. “It is unfair to blame workers for the fact that they are unable to go to work. Many employers have merely passed their financial troubles on to their workers by penalising them for not reporting for duty, even while they know that they cannot do so due to the national lockdown”, he added.
Last week AMCU wrote to the Minister of Employment and Labour, Honourable Thulas Nxesi, to enquire about certain failures to pay out money in terms of the Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) via the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). The Union also reported certain companies found to have committed fraud by using UIF monies to subsidise their wage bills.
“Employers must do their utmost to soften the blow of this difficult period on their employees, and not hide behind the lockdown”, said Mathunjwa. “The ball is now in their court. They must use the measures put in place by our government to ensure that workers are able to put food on the table. As we move to level 3, employers must ensure that all workers are paid”, he said. “We remain available to engage with employers to explore options in this regard”, Mathunjwa concluded.