The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has again called on employers to test all employees for Covid-19 as the pandemic continues to spread across South Africa.
AMCU notes that while it has consistently called for the testing of all workers, the official stance of government and employers has been to only test workers who fail the screening process.
“Even though AMCU warned that screening alone would have significant shortcomings, especially when workers do not present symptoms, there was no appetite to change the current approach by employers,” the union notes in a statement.
Although AMCU welcomes the opening of the economy, it says there remain serious concerns about the safety and welfare of workers as South Africa moves to Alert Level 3 of the national lockdown.
AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa says many workers are facing economic hardship as a result of the national lockdown. “It is important that they are enabled to return to work so that they can look after their families and their loved ones.”
On May 24, President Cyril Ramaphosa officially confirmed that the Covid-19 national lockdown regulations would relax to Alert Level 3 as of June 1. Some of the relaxations announced focus on reopening several sectors of the economy to 100% of capacity, including mining, manufacturing and related industries.
On May 17, when AMCU became aware of 19 new infections at Impala’s Marula mine in Limpopo, the union called for universal testing at mines. AMCU appealed to employers to refrain from saving the costs of testing all employees, estimated to cost between R800 and R1 000 an employee, and instead test every employee.
“This was followed up by a letter to all employers in the country, at about 300 mining and non-mining companies where AMCU is recognised, pleading with them to ensure the sustainability of their operations by testing all workers, especially those who are already on duty.”
In the letter, AMCU warned employers that a failure to do so may result in an explosion of infections in high-risk working environments like those in mining and manufacturing.
AMCU states, however, that its warning “seems to have been true”, as the latest Covid-19 reports include 146 workers found to be infected at AngloGold Ashanti’s Mponeng operations on the West Rand.
The union notes that, “most concerning, is the fact that most of these workers were asymptomatic and therefore passed the screening process”.
Further, AMCU states that, while it has consistently supported the reopening of industry, this should be undertaken on the firm condition that workplaces be made safe and that there are national minimum standards in place to protect workers and communities.
However, the union contends that when the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) attempted to avoid the setting of minimum standards, AMCU took it to court, resulting in the DMRE being ordered to issue national minimum standards for the mining and energy sectors by May 18.
AMCU states that these standards, in the form of a national Code of Practice in terms of Section 9 of the Mine Health and Safety Act, were duly gazetted on May 18 and are now in force and compulsory for all employers in the sector.
“Even though the DMRE did not include all of our proposals and those of the academic experts we enlisted to advise them, we feel that the court ruling was a victory for workers,” says Mathunjwa.