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Your labour rights during the lockdown

Written by: Dale Hes

The 21-day national lockdown has had a huge impact on businesses and employees.

In response, government has announced a number of measures to protect all workers from the impacts of the lockdown. These include employees who work in non-essential services and who are required to stay at home for the full 21 days.

What are essential services?

A large number of workers will stay at work during the 21-day lockdown. These include those working in essential services such as healthcare, disaster management, emergency services, security, essential transport, food and essential goods production (including farm workers and grocery store workers), electricity and water provision, funeral services, media, cleaning and refuse removal and essential mining, amongst others.

Businesses and other employers who do not provide the essential services outlined by the Department of Employment and Labour must shut down during the lockdown. If you work for one of these employers, then you may wonder how you are going to earn an income to get through the coming weeks.

Help for affected workers

The Department of Employment and Labour has put in place a number of measures to protect affected employees. These include the establishment of a new COVID-19 Employee/Employer Relief Scheme (TERS) set up through the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF).

Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi explains that if employers have been forced to close during the lockdown, they can apply to the relief scheme to pay their employees.

“This benefit will be de-linked from the UIF’s normal benefit structure. This benefit will be at a flat rate equal to the minimum wage (R3 500) per employee for the duration of the shutdown, to a maximum period of three months,” he says.

In other words, once businesses apply for the benefit and their application is approved, the UIF will provide at least R3 500 per employee. If they earn well above the national minimum wage, then employees are entitled to receive between 38 percent and 60 percent of their normal salaries.

The minister has strongly encouraged businesses to approach the UIF so that applications can be processed quickly. However, if businesses do not approach the UIF for assistance, then employees who are working reduced hours or are not being paid can individually apply to TERS or existing UIF benefits.

What about taking leave?

Importantly, workers must be aware that employers are not allowed to force their employees to take unpaid leave during the lockdown.

The department’s chief director of labour relations, Thembinkosi Mkalipi, says that he strongly encourages employers to not force their staff to take either paid or unpaid leave.

“We encourage employers not to request employees to utilise their annual leave credits for the lockdown, but to rather utilise the financial assistance that the department has placed at their disposal through the COVID-19 TERS, in cases where companies cannot afford to pay employees.”

Employers of domestic workers have also been strongly encouraged to give their workers paid leave. If they are unable to do so, then the domestic worker will be able to claim the national minimum wage from TERS.

How do you claim from TERS or report any unfair work practices?

The Department has set up a hotline number that can be used to get advice on how to access the TERS benefit. UIF staff will be available to assist employers and employees with queries between 8am and 8pm, on Mondays to Fridays, at 012 337 1997.

Minister Nxesi has stressed that employers of those working in essential services must have all the measures in place to protect their workers. The department has already received a number of complaints about companies forcing employees to work without the necessary protective equipment.

Labour inspectors are following up on the complaints.

“At this stage, we are urging these employers to do the right thing. [After that] we will start to name and shame individual companies and branches,” he says.

If you believe you are being unfairly treated in any way by your employer during the lockdown, or that you aren’t being protected from health risks in the workplace, contact the department at 0800 843 843.