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Covid-19: Open letter to President Ramaphosa

Author: A coalition of unions, co-ops and other organisations. (GroundUp)

Social Law Project along with a coalition of unions, co-ops and other organisations co-signed a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa demanding protection for precarious workers

President Cyril Ramaphosa at the opening of Parliament earlier this year. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

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We, a coalition of unions, co-operatives, feminist collectives, informal and formal workers, organisations and allies commend the Presidency for swift action in declaring a national State of Disaster to curb the impact of the Corona virus (Covid-19) in South Africa.

However, we are worried and are compelled to raise our concerns about the grave risks to both health and economic security that Covid-19 presents to precarious workers, including domestic workers, sex workers, women farm workers, health care workers, informal traders, shop assistants, recycling co-operatives and other. Our work should not cost us our lives. Over the past two weeks we have been inundated with calls from workers who say:

  • ​they have been dismissed or instructed to not show up for work, without pay or compensation;
  • they have been told to test for Covid-19, with no resources to get to testing facilities or self-isolate, while not being compensated for the time it takes to get to a facility (no-work-no-pay);
  • they have been forced to work and travel to their workplace in spite of high risksboth en route and in the households of their employers;
  • they have no access to water, or limited access to clean running water, and are not able to practise WHO (World Health Organisation) guideline safety standards at their homes or at their workplaces;
  • ​they have no choice but to live in confined spaces which do not allow for self-isolation and risk infecting family and household members;
  • they worry about not being able to put a plate of food on the table for their families and children;
  • they are forced to stop trading without any alternative means of income.

Precarious workers make use of mass transport systems (taxis and buses) to get to and from work, areas the WHO and National Department of Health have deemed as high risk for infection. Furthermore, domestic workers and health care workers work in intimate spaces with people who are at high risk of Covid-19 infection, such as the elderly and people who have travelled to and from high-risk countries. However, due to the legacy of inequality we continue to live in, these are the very same workers who will not be paid – and cannot afford – to self-quarantine. Without income, they also cannot afford healthy food or medication, making them even more vulnerable.

We commend the government for communicating around Covid-19, however, gaps remain in addressing the anxiety, fear and stigma related to infection. On top of the fear of dying, vulnerable workers reside in communities where the potential is high for stigmatisation and discrimination in the event of self-quarantine or being identified as having the virus.

We believe that a successful response to Covid-19 requires unity among all who live in South Africa, and our platform aims to be part of a unified solution. That unified response however, requires government to take bold and deliberate steps to ensure that the most vulnerable members of society are cared for and have their dignity and livelihoods secured. Covid-19 will exacerbate inequality among the working class of this country as they do not have the choice to “work from home” and they are subject to ‘no work no pay’ labour conditions.

This is compounded by the fact that domestic workers and informal workers particularly still do not have access to the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA) that other Covid-19 affected formal workers have.

This means that domestic workers and informal workers cannot claim compensation in the event that they contract Covid-19 while at work. Given that we are officially under a national state of disaster, Mr President, we call for expedited access to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) for domestic workers and informal workers. Mr President, we call for all vulnerable workers subject to ‘no work no pay’ conditions to be granted access to these funds to prevent their own infection, the infection of their employers, families and household members, and to keep infection rates in South Africa down.

Therefore, we call on the government to prioritise the need and protection of the working poor in our society:

1.  ​Instruct the private sector and employers to ensure workers who are forced to work are not exposed to risk and provided all the necessary protective gear according to WHO safety standards;

2.  Instruct the private sector and employers to implement measures to help avoid a social bloodbath; register workers for UIF, stop all retrenchments, expanded paid sick leave, expanded paid special leave and additional paid annual leave where necessary;

3.  Extend UIF to all precarious workers, including domestic workers and informal workers, in order to afford self-isolation where necessary;

4.  Expand COIDA to include all workers with immediate effect;

5.  Make it mandatory for all precarious workers including domestic workers and informal workers, and whose work is not vital to stopping the virus, to be released from work on full pay for the duration of time it takes to halt the spread of the virus;

6.  Utilise the existing social security safety nets such as SASSA to distribute additional relief funds (a Corona relief fund) and ensure that applications for these funds are administered through a one-stop office and/or online platform;

7.  Urgently implement a communication strategy to inform all workers and affected small businesses on how to access UIF and any other social security safety nets, such as a Corona relief fund;

8.  Accelerate access to universal basic needs such as clean water, nutritious food and dignified sanitation for those most marginalised by the Covid-19;

9.  Release a comprehensive Covid-19 testing protocol that includes the set up of mobile testing sites that test everyone in key areas that display symptoms, including where internal transmission has begun and be quarantined and access treatment;

10.  As part of the communication strategies, beyond digital communication, to get information about Covid-19 to societies, we urge government to implement door-to-door, verbal education to all, including to the many unemployed workers, to help assure that virus prevention steps are understood and taken seriously. *This should be done practising universal Covid-19 precautions;

11.  Government needs to prioritise the amendment of COIDA to include domestic workers as soon as Parliament reconvenes. The delay from November 2019 to now is unforgivable; and

​​​12.  We the workers, urge the President of South Africa to act upon the above 11 demands with urgency. To establish a transparent mechanism of accountability that tracks the implementation and delivery of all the 11 demands by 3 April 2020.

As the workers who form the backbone of the South African society, we have the ability to self-organise and are committed to being part of the solution to the current crisis. All we ask is for decisive leadership and grit from government that allays the fear and worry we as a society are experiencing. It’s Time to Care.

Signed: UDWOSA (United Domestic Workers of South Africa), SADSAWU (SA Domestic Service and Allied Workers’ Union), SAITA (SA Informal Traders’ Alliance), Social Law Project, Johannesburg Informal Traders Platform, Asijiki Sex Worker Coalition, SWEAT, Shayisfuba National Feminist Collective, Witsenberg Water Justice, Oxfam South Africa, South African Green Revolution Council, ANNDI People Movement (Alfred Nzo Movement), WAMUA (Women Affected by Mining United in Action), Ntinga Ntaba KaNdoda, the #TTS Movement, the Ekhuruleni Waste Management Association, several artists including Zama Mngadi, academics, Dr Tracey Naledi, Pregs Govender, Water Justice Coalition, Women on Farms Project and Fighting for Water Justice Coalition.​

Link to the petition: https://awethu.amandla.mobi/petitions/uif-to-be-used-to-help-workers-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak​

Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

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