File picture: Phill Magakoe
File picture: Phill Magakoe

Employers must continue to protect workers against Covid-19

By Opinion Time of article published Aug 31, 2021

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OPINION: Covid-19 should be declared an occupational disease so that workers can receive compensation should they fall ill or die from the disease, writes Luphert Chilwane.

It is the employer’s responsibility to fight Covid-19 at workplaces. Over the past few weeks, it has been encouraging to see the number of mineworkers opting for vaccination against the deadly Covid-19.

Also encouraging is the fact that many mineworkers have made a clarion call in their respective communities for everyone to follow suit.

Now that the vaccination rollout has begun, we should demand a detailed plan on how the government of the day and mining companies will make good on vaccination promises.

There are about 385 mines in South Africa which collectively employ 506 220 workers.

Over the past two months, up to 36 476 employees in the mining sector tested positive for Covid-19 while 422 employees have succumbed to Covid-19-related illnesses.

These grim figures mean that it is time for all of us to band together.

Furthermore, it is a time for mining communities, most in semi-urban and remote rural areas, to stand together.

Workers across all sectors must be included in real decision making on matters that affect their lives and we must as an industry and society act with haste to save lives.

The growing number of workers taking their jab is not only a progressive move but a step in the right direction as it reinforces individual responsibility in the private and public sectors.

However, this move must not have unintended consequences against the gains of bargaining powers and rights that workers have fought so hard for.

Trade unions such as the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) made a call last year directed at all mining stakeholders to prioritise workers as part of a cohort that needed to be vaccinated as soon as vaccines became available.

The union is on record to have reconfirmed its support for the country’s national vaccination programme and has urged all industry employees to get vaccinated as soon as they have the opportunity to do so.

Luphert Chilwane is the Media Officer at the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)

Mineworkers are regarded as a vulnerable group in terms of contracting the virus as they, in most instances, operate under deep-level conditions.

Their operations are also labour intensive due to the fact that they work in an environment that is often crowded and enclosed, raising the risk of them contracting the virus.

The growing number of Covid-19 infections across the country and in the sector requires urgent attention.

In a perspective of a workplace environment, Covid-19 should be declared an occupational disease so that workers can receive compensation should they fall ill or die from the disease.

All stakeholders must ensure that they continue to implement precautionary non-medical measures to prevent the escalating spread of Covid-19 such as screening and testing, social distancing, the wearing of masks and sanitising.

More than that, companies should continue to provide adequate education to employees and communities around the danger of Covid-19, and how to prevent it.

Meanwhile, for some companies, the Covid-19 outbreak has exposed their unscrupulous business practices which include breaching some of the labour laws.

Some have been found wanting by forcing workers to vaccinate while others have used the outbreak to exploit workers by overworking them amid retrenchments and salary cuts.

The government has initiated phases of the vaccination programme, specifically allocating R10-billion for the purchase and distribution of the vaccine.

Covid-19 is a phenomenon that has changed lives as we know it. In fact, to some extent, it has rendered us anti-social human beings. We can no longer shake hands, we cannot hug and we look at each other with suspicion.

The disease has taken away thousands of our fellow South Africans and more than a million people globally.

It is also important to state that every worker has the right to agree or refuse to be vaccinated. There should be no legislation that compels workers to be vaccinated.

Stakeholders must also take emergency action and work with haste to save the lives of mineworkers and the communities living in their surroundings.

* Chilwane is a media officer at the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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