The promise of 2020 was rudely interrupted by an unexpected invader that quickly introduced the world to a new level of fear and uncertainty, as it holds us all hostage in our homes.
The covid-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on the world.
As we attempt to gain a better understanding of this new disease, we need to look at how this virus will impact our everyday lives and importantly, how it will affect labour and labour law in South Africa.
Not much is yet understood about covid-19, which honestly only frightens us more, but we do know that it’s a virus that falls into the category as one of the human corona viruses. Although there are a wide variety of human corona viruses, covid-19 has had a way more devastating effect on the human population. Seeming to have originated from a live-foods market in Wuhan China, covid-19 quickly spread across the world and was subsequently deemed a global pandemic shortly thereafter.
One of the scariest things about this disease is the fact that it is so new and unknown, as it was only discovered at the end of 2019, and there is no known cure or vaccine for it. To try and manage the increasing infection rate of this virus, many states across the globe have implemented country-wide lock downs.
South Africa was officially placed under lock down on the 27th of March 2020, while the government began trying to manage the fallout from this virus. The state has even taken the necessary steps to temporarily ban gatherings of large groups of people, making it difficult for people to go to work.
Lock down literally has people staying at home, posing some interesting challenges to the South African workforce. Labour law pretty much mandates or defines the relationship between employees and employers, and in South Africa we have to include various other groups such as trade unions and labour brokers which is why the government is also involved.
Workers’ rights in South Africa are protected by various legislations, like the Labour Law Act 66 of 1995, which came into effect soon after South Africa became a democratic state. This act has been amended over the years to ensure that it is updated to accommodate the ever changing employment market, by ensuring that workers’ rights remain the main priority. Supporting legislation like the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which have since been amended, places the responsibility on employers to ensure that they limit or mitigate any hazard or dangers employees may face in the workplace. Working conditions need to always be safe and healthy, but especially now as we are facing a global pandemic.
Covid-19 has had a clear and direct impact on the workforce as many people have been unable to leave their homes and businesses have temporarily closed. The only people allowed to continue working are essential and permitted services such as the vital healthcare workers needed to fight this virus, grocery store workers as food supply cannot be and emergency services to name but a few. This has left the rest of the workforce in a state of limbo.
Some companies have been able to continue operations by making a few minor adjustments like allowing its employees to work remotely, but for those who cannot it means there has been a complete shutdown of productivity. Production is frozen at this uncertain time, meaning that businesses are not making money, and this is disastrous for all parties involved. With profits decreasing, most companies will have to begin using terms like restructuring and retrenchment, which will destabilise many working class families. This pandemic has shown how most people are actually living from pay check- to- pay check and how the slightest interruption in that income means their families are going to bed hungry.
Government seems to realise that the financial impact of this pandemic could be far more catastrophic for our country than the disease itself, as there will potentially be millions of employees who will suddenly be without means to feed their families. Several wealthy allies of the President (must be nice to have billionaire besties right) have donated large sums of money to aid in the economic relief of our country to try ensure some form of stability is maintained. Even social grants have seen a slight increase during the pandemic as government pension has risen by 4.6% as from the first of April 2020. Government has also compiled a document that could help workplaces organise and prepare themselves for workers to return. The Department of Employment and Labour has drafted the Workplace Preparedness: Covid-19 (SARS-CoV`19 virus) which is a 12 page document of ways to slowly and safely reintroduce employees to the workplace.
With many laws being amended at this time, labour laws will need to be expanded to include times of pandemic in order to provide security for employees who unfortunately find themselves at the mercy of both the disease and the unstable employment market in South Africa. In the meantime employers should ensure that they have the capacity to provide a safe working space for when the employees begin returning to work.
New labour laws will need to closely monitor the current situation, and hopefully learn from the many mistakes that will surely emerge from this time. As ill-prepared as we have been for this pandemic, it can only aid the law in finding new precedent that will help strengthen laws in the future.
For those of us fortunate enough to be able to work remotely at a time like this, not a lot us will change except maybe the larger workload and extended working hours companies seem to be expecting from us. We need to remember that we are the few and fortunate minority as most workers who are from the most vulnerable communities are going to be affected the worst. Ultimately, the impact of covid-19 and the subsequent lock down may only be properly understood once all this has passed. It is then we will be able to accurately assess the true extent of the damage done by this pandemic both to the human population and to global markets as a whole. This uncertain period we are in means everything that is occurring is a completely new and uncharted scenario.
We will therefore, need to adopt a more flexible and adaptable approach as we contend with the possible devastation of Covid-19.