NEWS & ANALYSIS

Lockdown: Govt did not engage with unions on worker support – Irvin Jim

NUMSA GS says this is unacceptable as there ‘can be nothing about workers without workers’

NUMSA response to the coronavirus lockdown and the implication for the working class and poor  

25 March 2020

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) notes the ANC Government’s decisive and swift move in taking measures to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic that has swept the globe and reached South Africa. However, we have noticed a worrying trend where the Government led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, consistently fails to include Labour on matters that affect workers’ lives. Government moved with speed to consult Business, yet did not make the time to engage with Labour on interventions to be taken in dealing with this national crisis and the 21-day lockdown and its implications for workers’ and their families’.

We are particularly irritated having been informed that the South African President cancelled the meeting of Presidents and General Secretaries of all the Labour Federations, stating that such an engagement would be postponed until after the 21-day shutdown. In our view, this takes for granted the role of unions in representing workers’ interests. We would like to remind Government that there can be “nothing about workers without workers” as they remain the producers of wealth in this country. They must be respected. It is workers who will deliver the much needed essential supplies that are needed in this crisis. It is also workers who carry and will rebuild the future economy of South Africa following this pandemic.   

Whilst NUMSA is fully behind the necessary measures that Government must implement to protect the lives of South Africans, it is unacceptable that Government and Business make time to caucus and shut down the economy for 21 days without engaging Labour on the necessary support workers’ will need to pull through this crisis. Given the continuous socio-economic conditions of workers and the working class in general in South Africa, it cannot be accepted that Government and Business can trigger a 21-day shutdown and expect workers to pay for this crisis. We therefore demand and call on Government to ensure that workers across all sectors of the economy are guaranteed full pay during this 21-day shutdown. We reject the notion that Employers use workers’ wages to pay them, through paid leave.

While it is clear that Government, Banks and the owners of wealth in South Africa will be negatively affected by this pandemic, it is workers and the working class in general who will suffer the most. It is known fact that the South African economy is fragile and in recession. Unemployment and poverty is rising. Businesses and almost all sectors across our country are in distress. It is workers who have been making sacrifices to ensure production continues. Workers’ have been victim to retrenchments, lay-offs, short time as a consequence of the country’s ailing state of the economy. In this pandemic, it is for Government, Business and Banks to rise up and make the necessary sacrifices, tapping into their reserves to ensure that workers receive their wages in full and that we survive this crisis. This is crucial if workers and extended families who are unemployed are to be able to buy quality food and to keep themselves healthy, whilst fighting and containing this virus.

NUMSA does not agree with the assertion made by President Cyril Ramaphosa that Government will only cushion small to medium sized companies. This is not enough. We are calling on Government to be decisive. We will need greater action if our nation is to survive this pandemic. Firstly, Government cannot continue with austerity measures during this time of crisis. Secondly, the action required must be put into context. This virus is attacking our people at a time when the South African economy, since 2019, has been facing serious, deep, structural economic decline and stagnation. This virus is attacking the country at a time when the South African economy has been going through extreme de-industrialisation and our people have been facing massive job losses of unprecedented proportion. This can only be defined as a job loss bloodbath which requires that we recognise that this is a national emergency, which has now been compounded by the coronavirus.

We are confronted with COVID-19 at time when our state-owned enterprises are on the brink of collapse, most notably Eskom and South African Airways, but also including PRASA, Transnet and Denel. What this means is that power, transport and the security of the country is vulnerable and we will be facing retrenchments on a mass scale, further exacerbating the unemployment levels in South Africa. What this means is that we cannot accept anything less than a major financial intervention no different to the Marshall Plan, which was an economic recovery plan to provide aid to Western Europe following the devastation of the Second World War.

In the immediate, Government must make capital available to the economy to cushion workers’ full wages, benefits and conditions, and to protect the current capacity for manufacturing. This capital injection is necessary to stimulate economic growth as a matter of urgency. Government must make available a meaningful stimulus package of not less than 500 billion Rand, and, an additional 500 billion Rand will now be needed as we face the Coronavirus contagion. Serious interventions, which could take many forms, must be made to protect and cushion the working class. We will need an urgent national income grant which must be paid to the unemployed to ensure that they can comply with the President’s measures, such as self-isolation and the reduction in movement. The majority South Africans will find this a near impossible feat as large families are packed and confined within small homes. Many South Africans do not have access to adequate water and sanitation. For many, they will require transport to collect supplies for quarantine, yet under the circumstances, standard public transport is not appropriate. For those who are a part of the essential services group, transport will also be a necessity to get to and from work where minibuses are the standard practice, and where workers will be affected during the shutdown.

While Public Private Partnerships are an attempt at collaboration between the public and private sectors, the prevailing circumstances require full cooperation between the state and each and every person in South Africa. Furthermore, we will need a Government that intervenes in the economy, especially as we face the contagion. If there is one thing that the coronavirus is showing us, it is the unsustainability of the global economic system and it will require that Government, Business and Labour pull their energies together to ensure that South Africa has a fighting chance in confronting the Coronavirus.

We therefore call on Government to convene a meeting of all unions and all federations across various sectors of the economy to begin a debate regarding economic policies, not only to confront an economy already in recession, but in being proactive in responding to the fact that there are no guarantees that this global crisis of Coronavirus will not redefine and reshape trade relations. As a country, we need our own plan from which we must stimulate economic growth led by the state that will be a first step in preparing how we are going to engage the rest of the world. 

We are calling on Government to make real and meaningful contributions to cushion wages. Government, however, must also demand that the private sector do the same to cushion workers, acknowledging as a nation, that the main beneficiaries are also the unemployed in the form of extended families. One worker who secures employment supports more than five to ten extended family members.

To cushion the working class, NUMSA repeats the Eight Demands which at a policy level, should be urgently implemented in support of the working class majority who are the most vulnerable to this Coronavirus contagion:

Private hospitals must be nationalised and open to all

Testing and treatment for coronavirus must be free

Cut interest rates down to zero for the duration of the epidemic and create stimulus packages for the economy

A basic income grant must be made available for the poor

Guaranteed paid leave for all workers who have been placed on quarantine, or short-time/layoff because of the temporary shutdown of plants;

All home loan and rent payments including all debt repayments must be suspended until after the epidemic has been dealt with

Food parcels must be provided for all those on self-isolation or quarantine in our townships and informal settlements;

It must be mandatory for all companies to adhere to the World Health Organisation standards of cleanliness in the workplace. Workers who are forced to work and who are exposed to the public, e.g. garage workers, cashiers, waiters etc. all workers in the service industry must be provided with safety masks, sanitisers and gloves while on duty by the employer. This must be enforced with severe penalties for those who fail to adhere.

If we fail to implement these measures we are headed for a disaster of catastrophic proportions from which we will never recover.

Aluta continua!

The struggle continues!

Issued by Irvin Jim, NUMSA General Secretary, 25 March 2020