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CWAO and COVID-19 Worker Rights

Trade unions can operate under COVID-19 Level 4

10 May 2020


Trade union essential staff can now travel to work and meet at workplaces with individual workers or shop stewards. Union officials can meet with the union’s lawyers, and can attend conciliation, arbitration and court hearings. These must all be done in ways that will not spread the coronavirus.

Many workers continued to work after the first ‘lockdown’ of 26 March. Most of them did not get even the most basic PPE like sanitizer and masks as bosses scrambled to make maximum profits from the epidemic. Workers who were locked down faced ‘no work no pay’, forced annual leave or were simply sent home empty-handed. While bosses could do as they pleased, worker organisations were effectively banned from operating. Combined with the closure of the CCMA and the Labour Centres, this left workers defenseless against the bosses.

The government has issued new regulations under Level 4 that allow trade unions to operate. But the regulations apply only to registered trade unions. Unregistered trade unions, worker forums and the many advice offices that support workers will not be able to operate. The ban on these organisations will continue at a time when larger numbers of workers are returning to work and the CCMA and Labour Centres remain inaccessible to the majority of workers. Bosses will continue to do as they please, including long term restructuring of their workplaces to make even more profit. Worker organising is the only way to stop the bosses’ rotten system of exploitation.

The new regulations say registered unions can play a role in:

  1. How bosses change their workplaces to prevent and fight the spread of the coronavirus
  2. Educating union members about the dangers of the coronavirus and the need for workplace changes
  3. Helping to settle disputes over such changes, and
  4. Making sure bosses do health & safety risk assessments and implement workplace plans before workers go back to work

The regulations say trade unions must:

  1. Make their offices COVID-ready to avoid or reduce infection before a return to work
  2. Hold leadership and executive meetings online
  3. Take steps to allow its officials to work from home as far as possible. ‘Officials’ includes office bearers

Trade union officials can attend the following meetings and hearings:

  1. With shop stewards or individual workers at the workplace
  2. With lawyers representing the union
  3. Conciliation and arbitration
  4. Court hearings

In all these meetings masks must be worn, there must be safe distancing and any other COVID-19 rules the venue may have must be followed.

Union officials can attend these activities only if the activities cannot be held online and only with the permission of the union general secretary or chairperson. This permission will be in the form of a permit. (Form 2 in Annexure A of the National Disaster Regulations.)

Enforcement officers must allow trade union officials with such essential trade union work permits to travel between their homes, offices, employer premises, bargaining councils, the CCMA and the courts.

Employers and their organisations

  1. Employer organisations have the same rights and duties as registered trade unions.
  2. Employers must provide shop stewards with online access to the union, bargaining council, CCMA and the courts
  3. Provide safe facilities, in line with existing procedures and its COVID-19 rules, for the following:
    • Shop steward meetings, with safe distancing
    • Meetings of any committee or forum set up under labour laws
    • Meetings between union officials and shop stewards or workers in the workplace, with safe distancing

Contact CWAO for more advice

Note: CWAO is a small independent advice office and does not work for or with the Department of Labour or any government institutions.

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