Rustenburg - Workers in South Africa are experiencing extreme hardship under the coronavirus lockdown, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) said on Friday.
"Our members are experiencing extreme hardship at this time. Brutal employers have taken advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to vary conditions and restructure.
"Some workers have been forced to endure the lockdown with no money as 'no work, no pay’ policies are implemented. Others have forcibly had their leave days deducted from them, while others must prepare for mass retrenchments after the lockdown is lifted," general secretary Irvin Jim said in his Workers' Day message.
"At the same time, some employers are cutting corners on health and safety, demanding that workers return to work, when they have done very little to prepare the workplace to prevent Covid-19 infections. The working class is enduring a relentless and violent attack from the bosses.
"The measures which our government has put in place, such as the Temporary Employment Relief Scheme (TERS) through the UIF, are not adequate to deal with the impact that the temporary closure of businesses would have. It has been hugely inefficient: in some cases it has not paid out, or has paid out very little, thus increasing the rage and frustration of ordinary workers and their families. The bosses are taking advantage of the hunger and desperation of our members, which is why they are demanding that workers return to work, even when proper safety guidelines and processes are not in place."
He said the workers were trapped between two hard choices: die from hunger, or die from the coronavirus.
"It is completely unfair and unrealistic to expect that the working class must endure a lockdown without the guarantee of an income. The same companies which are brutalising workers are also receiving benefits from the very same government in order to protect their profits during the lockdown.
"Furthermore, for decades before the pandemic, the same companies, such as the auto companies, raked in massive profits and paid generous dividends to their shareholders. But, shockingly, they plead poverty and now claim that they do not have enough money to pay workers’ salaries for one month of the lockdown. They are hiding behind the pandemic in order to effect mass retrenchments to improve their balance sheets."
He said the coronavirus has exposed a capitalist system in crisis, which was unable to respond to this pandemic, because the only way to fight the virus was to do the opposite of what conservative right-wing economists advise.
"In order to prevent the virus, you need to wash your hands and live in a sanitised and hygienic environment. This means the population must have access to decent housing, water and sanitation services, something the majority of South Africans do not have.
"Secondly, because of the aggressive nature of the virus, all resources must be deployed towards fighting the disease. This means the private health-care sector must be nationalised so that resources and expertise can be shared and can be used for the benefit of all," he said.
He said the workers must not compromise on their demands for a safe, sanitised workspace and, at the same time, they must continue to demand a living wage.
"The coronavirus pandemic has shown us that it is the lowest-paid workers – the essential workers – who are actually driving the battle against this virus. Nurses, cleaners, care workers, ambulance drivers, hospital technicians and others are all working tirelessly to defeat the virus, at great risk to their lives, and yet they are some of the lowest paid.
"Health workers also suffer the indignity of labour brokers, who, unscrupulously, exploit workers by paying them peanuts. We must intensify campaigns to ban labour brokers because they are nothing more than parasites," he said.
"The working class are the creators of wealth and yet they are suffering the most.
"This situation can only change if we take radical steps to destroy this system of capitalist greed which thrives on this kind of inequality and suffering."
Friday was the first time that workers in South Africa celebrated Workers' Day behind closed doors at home due to the national coronavirus lockdown.
The government declared a national state of disaster on March 15, with a total national lockdown beginning at midnight on March 26, in an attempt to slow the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the country. On May 1, the lockdown was eased from level 5 to level 4, allowing greater movement for individuals and allowing businesses in several sectors to restart operations, albeit under strict conditions.
The novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was first recorded in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, in December 2019 and soon spread to other parts of the world. To date the virus has infected more than 3 million people worldwide and killed more than 234 000.
In South Africa, more than 5 000 people have been infected by the disease, with 116 deaths.