The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen launched the Southern Africa Weekly Human Rights Roundup, aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. The Human Rights Roundup integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.
This issue focuses on the impact of Covid-19 on workers’ rights across Southern Africa.
The restrictive measures imposed by governments to combat the spread of the pandemic has resulted in economies shrinking, businesses closing and severe deindustrialisation across Southern Africa.
As a result there has been large scale job and livelihood losses. Those who have been lucky to preserve their jobs have been forced by lockdown measures to work from home.
Workers in the essential services have experienced long hours. In many countries, workers in such essential services, which are often also high risk, have not been given adequate personal protective equipment (PPEs) that protects them from exposure to the virus. This has resulted in workplace tension manifested by strikes in many countries.
Covid-19 added pressures to an already battered workforce in a region characterized by a large informal sector, eroded earnings, high unemployment, casualization of labour, gender inequalities. Vulnerable workers such as vendors, informal traders (self-employed), migrant workers, asylum seekers and undocumented people have suffered the most including facing evictions for non payment of rentals and starvation because they are not normally covered by social grants restricted to citizens.
At this point, there is only anecdotal evidence on the true cost of this devastating impact, especially from the private sector because, other than in South Africa, no governments offered stimulus packages for industry nor financial support to workers. Whilst concrete evidence will be too early to expect, we present a preliminary gloomy picture of how workers’ rights, safety and well being in Southern Africa have been affected. Regrettably, the situation is expected to deteriorate further.
Health Workers and Protective Personal Equipment (PPE)
Southern Africa is notorious for weak health systems characterised by poor public health infrastructure and inadequate number of health workers. Many countries failed to ensure PPE was available in adequate quantities for health workers. Most governments did not adhere to directives on working safely in line with WHO guidelines on Getting your workplace ready for Covid-19: How Covid-19 spreads.
The failure to provide public health workers with PPE resulted in strikes, picketing and demonstrations. In Tanzania, for example, one nurse summed up the situation facing thousands of health workers across Southern Africa when she had this to say:
“I have been working at Amana Regional Referral Hospital for 10 years. Here is what my normal day looks like: I do not have any PPE, but I commute in public transport. How am I supposed to protect myself and others? How am I supposed to protect my family? We are struggling… people are demoralised.”
In March, doctors and nurses in Zimbabwe protested against the government’s failure to provide them with PPE and adequately equip public hospitals to combat the Covid-19 outbreak. In an application filed on 5 April, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) approached the High Court, arguing that they were at risk of contracting the virus.
The Food Federation and Allied Workers Union of Zimbabwe (FFAWUZ) was forced to approach the Ministry of Labour and Social Services with an urgent appeal to get adequate PPE and other necessary amenities during the 21 day lockdown as some employers failed to protect workers especially in the food industry.
In April, healthcare workers in Lesotho went on strike following failed attempts to engage the government on how to obtain protective gear, training and a risk allowance.
Also in April in Eswatini the Swaziland Democratic Nurses Union (Swadnu), resolved to take the Eswatini government to court for gross negligence, and to compel the government to supply adequate PPE to all healthcare workers. This came after a nurse at Raleigh Fitkin Memorial (RFM) hospital tested positive for Covid-19 and 10 other nurses were isolated.
On 28 April, South Africa’s Department of Employment and Labour issued a directive giving clear guidance on mandatory safety measures that employers needed to put in place to protect employees.
The C-19 People’s Coalition, representing more than 300 civil society organizations, however raised concern that the directive, while welcome, came over a month after lockdown commenced, thereby endangering people in the workplace. The Coalition also noted that many workplaces continued to ignore worker’s rights with some workplaces failing to provide basic safety measures.
On 1 May, a number of trade unions in South Africa, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and community health workers picketed outside Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in commemoration of workers’ day. They too cited incidents of healthcare workers not being given the requisite PPE to protect themselves.
They also called for the proper training of community health workers and that all frontline healthcare workers be screened and tested for Covid-19 as a matter of priority, absent of which industrial action would follow.
Mineworkers’ rights violated
Thousands of mine workers in the DRC were subjected to enforced quarantine at Tenke Fungurume copper and cobalt mine for two months. They held a successful strike on 23 May that led to the payment of a special allowance of US$600 to the 6000 mineworkers forcibly quarantined. The workers were also demanding to be paid for the overtime that they worked during the quarantine period. Work continued at the mine during the quarantine because mining is considered an essential service under Congolese law.
In March, IndustriALL Global Union reported that the Mineworkers Union of Zambia successfully campaigned for alcohol breathalyzer tests to be discontinued as they can easily spread the coronavirus resulting in some mining companies that include Mopane Copper Mines, Lubambe Copper Mine, Kanshanshi and Barrick Lumwana complying. Additionally, biometric systems in which workers used fingers were also reported as unsafe.
With the complicity of the unions, around two-thirds of South Africa’s 450,000 mineworkers returned to work to face the dangers of coronavirus on pain of starvation when the first stage of lockdown ended on 16 April. During the first 21 days of lockdown, employees were paid, but when it was extended a further 14 days, the employers in the Mineral Council refused to extend wage payments.
Mine owners say they have “plans” to operate safely at the pits. Work conditions in the pits, however, preclude social distancing. Workers go down into the pits packed in cages and work closely in teams at the face without visors or facemasks.
Lay offs and unpaid leave in the transport industry
Travel Bus Company Intercape sent letters to its employees in Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe notifying them it will temporarily lay them off starting 1 May 2020. The April letter informed employees they would receive their April salaries and that the temporary layoff would be for May, June and July 2020. Employees affected were told not to expect a salary for these months.
Forced paid leave has become the most direct consequence of Covid-19 on the labour market and no industry symbolises this than the airline industry.
Restrictions to international travel affect African airlines such as Ethiopian Airlines, Egyptair, Kenya Airways, and South African Airways, which are large employers and have linkages to other domestic businesses.
The first effects were the immediate partial unemployment of airline staff. Zimbabwe’s state-owned airline put workers on indefinite unpaid leave after revenue dried up. The perennially loss-making national carrier said it would retain skeleton staff for ad hoc operations and airworthiness compliance, adding that wages remained its biggest cost.
At South African Airways (SAA), the majority of the national carrier’s estimated 4,708 employees have not been paid for May. Most staff are on unpaid absence. Zazi Nsibanyoni-Mugambi, President of the South African Cabin Crew Association (Sacca), one of the major unions at the flagship carrier, told The Africa Report that workers have not been paid for May. “And not even the benefits have been paid – like, medical aid subsidies, Unemployment Insurance Fund contributions, pensions and all of those things. That’s also been stopped.”
Workers rendered redundant overnight
The United Nations says about 20 million jobs could be lost globally.
In April, 216 companies throughout Mozambique notified the Labour Ministry that they were suspending or reducing their activities in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, affecting 6,400 workers, according to the General Inspector of Labour, Joaquim Siuta.
Siuta added that, under these circumstances, companies should pay their workers 75% of their wages for the first month they were laid off, 50% for the second month, and 25% for the third month. The National Social Security Institute (INSS), he insisted, would only pay sickness benefit to workers with a hospital document proving they were ill. Siuta thus dashed hopes that the INSS might cash in its investments in order to pay wages to workers who have lost their jobs.
The majority of countries in the region rely heavily on the tourism sector and Covid-19 has hit this sector the hardest.
In April, the leading hotelier in Zimbabwe closed 21 of its hotels and strategic business units around the country. In an internal memo signed by the company’s acting human resources director, Believe Dirorimwe, and addressed to senior managers and staff, every affected employee’s salary was cut by 50%.
Eswatini’s Minister of Tourism and Environmental Affairs, Moses Vilakati, on 19 May, spoke to CNBC Africa on how Covid-19 has impacted the country’s recovery plan. He reported that some hotels have closed indefinitely, resulting in retrenchments and huge job losses. Over 26% of employment in the country is via the tourism industry.
South Africa‘s biggest non-food retailer Edcon, on 11 June, served 22,000 of its employees with notices of retrenchments. This is more than half of the group’s 39,000 full-time and temporary employees.
So far, a number of African startups have announced layoffs, placed staff on indefinite unpaid leave or implemented salary cuts exclusively and this is in addition to job cuts. For example Yoco which claims over 150 employees on its payroll, announced that it was downsizing significantly.
One of the first indigenous movie streaming platforms in Africa, iROKOtv, announced that, as from May 2020, 28% of its employees will be put on an indefinite unpaid leave of absence.
Faced with reduced business, employers across the region also arbitrarily imposed salary cuts.
In May, Lesotho Times reported that factory workers were being issued M800 salary subsidies by the Lesotho government to cushion them from the closure of businesses which were deemed non-essential such as textile companies.
On 13 May, The Patriot on Sunday reported that the government of Botswana was headed for a fresh showdown with employees following its decision to freeze overtime payments for the essential public servants.
In South Africa, President Ramaphosa announced taking a 33% pay cut motivating his entire executive and all nine provincial premiers to also take a similar percentage in pay cuts for three months. The cumulative cuts, estimated to be worth around R13.4m, were donated to the Covid-19 Solidarity Fund.
Leading hotelier African Sun also cut salaries for most of its employees including executives and senior managers by 50% as the effects of Covid-19 took a toll on the hospitality industry.
The plight of migrant workers
7.9% of workers in Africa are migrant workers and the majority of migration is intra-continental. In Southern Africa, South Africa is the magnet for millions of migrants but countries like Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, DRC also host many. Migrants already face a slew of challenges, including accessing healthcare, even in normal circumstances due to lack of health insurance, cost, administrative hurdles, lack of access to facilities, and language barriers. Additionally, many migrants are frontline workers who keep people healthy, safe, and fed. Social protection for these workers, if received at all, is typically limited to some work injury compensation or health benefits, and almost never includes unemployment assistance.
It has been the South African government’s long-standing objective to reduce migration, and the pandemic has provided a cynical opportunity to do so.
On 24 April, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni urged companies to allow more South Africans to participate in the economy than foreign nationals, citing businesses such as restaurants, spaza shops, informal trading and so on. These are the very spaces occupied by most migrant workers.
There is a danger that post Covid-19, most migrant workers from the region will find themselves jobless if countries insist on inward-looking policies to try and placate local populations with populist, nationalist solutions.
What do the Unions say?
The Southern Africa Trade Union Coordination Council (SATUCC) acknowledged that the pandemic had been very disastrous to workers’ rights. The council further noted that the impact was worse on un-unionised workers such as migrant workers, domestic workers, farm workers and those in the informal sector.
As a result SATUCC is now working on including these categories of workers in its work. In an interview on 4 May, the Executive Secretary of SATUCC, Mavis A Koogotsitse, admitted that the pandemic caught trade unions napping. She stressed that unions should now think beyond the traditional ways of mobilising in the workplace.
The European Network of Equality Bodies (EQUINET) expressed concern over what it referred to as “a new and scary discrimination trend,” that has arisen worldwide against those that are in the frontline of action noting how the daily lives of nurses, doctors and healthcare workers are increasingly being affected by discriminatory attitudes and harassment.
The International Labor Organization noted with concern how Covid-19 containment measures have threatened to increase relative poverty levels among the world’s informal economy workers thereby exacerbating already existing vulnerabilities and inequalities. Among other recommendations, the ILO emphasised the need for policies that reduce the exposure of informal workers to the virus; ensure that those infected have access to health care; provide income and food support to individuals and their families; and prevent damage to the economic fabric of countries.
The impact of Covid-19 on the labour market has been huge. The healthcare shortfalls exposed by Covid-19 in Africa, led Human Rights Watch to call on governments to urgently address healthcare deficiencies in line with international human rights law, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. It is highly important that labour policies, laws and regulations be revamped to make them as pandemic-proof as possible if workers are not to bear the same brunt in future. Meanwhile, mechanisms aimed at redressing a litany of labour infringements against workers during the Covid-19 pandemic need to be urgently conceived and implemented. As Guy Ryder, the Director-General of the International Labor Organisation (ILO) aptly said:
“Workers and businesses are facing catastrophe, in both developed and developing economies …We have to move fast, decisively, and together. The right, urgent, measures, could make the difference between survival and collapse.”
Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer, the director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the technical and strategy adviser of the SAHRDN. Tatenda Mazarura is a woman human rights defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen.