Fitness enthusiasts, workers to embark on nationwide protest as they call for gyms reopen

Virgin Active Health Clubs help thousands of members to get moving. Photo: Leon Lestrade

Virgin Active Health Clubs help thousands of members to get moving. Photo: Leon Lestrade

Published Aug 1, 2020


Johannesburg - Gym employees and fitness enthusiasts from across the country are set to embark on a national protest next week against the closure of gyms in South Africa.

The fitness industry has suffered enormously since the national lockdown was implemented on March 26, with several gyms forced to shut their doors permanently.

The industry employs about 29 000 people at approximately 1096 gyms across the country. It’s expected that around 80% of gyms are likely to shut down permanently, with massive job losses, should gyms continue to remain closed.

Fitness group Virgin Active have already announced that they will be temporarily laying off more than 3000 staff members, while Planet Fitness say they, too, have been forced to consider retrenchments.

Next Wednesday, gym employees from across the country will partake in peaceful demonstrations to protest against the closure of gyms.

The protest will be headed by FitSA, the association of health and fitness clubs in the country.

“We’ve been asked by our member clubs, largely an initiative from all their staff, to rather than protest, have a peaceful demonstration to highlight our cause,” said FitSA spokesperson Grant Austin.

Gym employees and members have been asked to gear up in black and white gym clothes and to protest near their closest gym at around midday.

Austin said the lockdown had had a debilitating impact on the fitness industry. “Lockdown has devastated the industry,” said Austin.

“For example, Virgin, who stopped debiting clients immediately (as I’m sure they and no one else expected lockdown to last so long) have temporarily laid off 95% of their staff, and they are big-hitters in the health and fitness game, with deep pockets. So you can imagine the effect this has had on the smaller guys.”

“I personally have been taking calls late at night from gym owners saying they are desperate and they don’t want to let staff go but they are flat-out financially and have used up their last resources.

“Fitness is something people get into as a business as they are passionate about helping people, so they will burn their last cent trying to stay alive in the industry they love.”

“On the positive side, we have run surveys and the overwhelming response has been our members want to get back to gym, and also non-gym people have realised their immune system is their best defence, so over 81% of the non-gymgoers surveyed said they would consider joining, too.”

Should gyms not be given the go-ahead to open soon, Austin fears a complete collapse of the industry. “Our industry is in tatters, and it is scary to think we may not survive.”

“What will the public do without gyms? This is a real concern. “We are a very important industry to keep going. If you look at virtually all the comorbidities that are causing deaths from Covid-19, regular exercise fights them all.

“Keeping us closed is making us all vulnerable to Covid-19.” While there is no clear date as to when gyms will be allowed to reopen, Austin said he hopes that they will be given the go-ahead soon after positive talks with the Department of Sport.

“Till very recently we have not had any direct communication aside from what has been relayed to us via Virgin Active, who have led the initiative on the industry’s behalf.”

“However, yesterday I called the Department of Sport personally and had a very positive chat which has filled me with new hope that we are going to open soon.”

Aside from the fact that we as an industry have agreed on a very high level of safety protocols to ensure our members and staff can come back safely, one of the important points raised was that the Olympics are next year and the athletes need our gyms open to start preparing.”

Austin believes gyms should be allowed to open as various other sporting facilities have been given the go-ahead by the government.

“We do feel it is unfair, as even boxing and karate are open and they are very similar to what we do.” “Our protocols also far exceed what they have been opened on. Perhaps unfair is the wrong word, as that may imply we hold that against them, which is not the case.

“Any form of exercise that is allowed, we endorse and support, but it’s really time for us to be opened, too.” Virgin Active said they had been forced to proceed with temporary layoffs due to the lengthy closure of gyms.

“Virgin Active has navigated almost four months of closure due to lockdown restrictions, receiving zero membership revenue since 27 March, 2020,” said a Virgin Active spokesperson.

“All member debit orders were automatically frozen at the start of lockdown. During this time, we have continued to pay staff. “This position is not sustainable long-term, with no date for reopening agreed with government, and as such we had to move ahead with temporary lay-offs across our clubs, national head office and contact centre.

“To support the staff who have been temporarily laid off, they will still receive at least 25% of their income and their medical insurance contribution despite suspended employment.”

“The reopening of gyms will allow us to abandon these temporary lay-offs and recall our people to resume their work activities.”

Planet Fitness said they would have to consider retrenchments. “There have been no job losses at Planet Fitness; the company has taken a view that people are core to our business, but we have had to make use of UIF funding for staff and we have had to ask staff to take some pay cuts,” said Planet Fitness spokesperson Gillian Elson.

“UIF funding payouts have been unreliable. The business is burning a significant amount of cash as we have not been billing our members at all during lockdown.

“We are one of the largest players in the industry and have some of our own reserves and the ability and finance to some extent, but some of the smaller guys are not in the same position.

“The longer we go on like this, and the continued delay in opening means that we may be forced to look at job losses as it is not viable to continue in this manner.”

Elson also confirmed that their employees would be partaking in the planned protest on Wednesday. “We are aware that a protest has been planned and that staff are planning to protest together with the rest of the fitness industry.”

“As a company, we have no objection to our 2000 staff joining in the protest as we believe that their voices need to be heard. Employees are currently experiencing extreme hardships, families are starving, with no help from government and the TERS UIF funding has been unreliable.”

Elson is hoping that the government acts with urgency to open gyms and avoid a collapse of the industry. “We strongly believe that gyms should be opened, and should open as a matter of urgency, and are very much part of the solution in keeping our members fit and healthy.”

The Saturday Star