Government, working with social partners, was able to mitigate some of the effects of the pandemic and lockdowns, Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi said on June 11 during a media briefing on his department’s role in mitigating the worst effects of Covid-19 in the labour market.
This, he said, was done through leveraging its social security institutions, particularly the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), working with business and labour to create the Covid-19 Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (Ters) benefits, and building a mass network to distribute the new benefits on an “unprecedented” scale.
Concurrent to this was the use of health and safety inspectors, both to support social partners in the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) in the drafting of Covid-19 health and safety directions, as well as to inspect and enforce the new regulations alongside existing health and safety regulations.
Nxesi emphasised that this was achieved while working with reduced budgets, as the pandemic and economic trends adversely impacted on government revenues.
To enforce compliance, over 31 000 health and safety inspections were conducted for the period from April 1, 2020, to March 31 this year.
The department appointed an additional 500 occupational health and safety (OHS) inspectors, which Nxesi said enabled a four-fold increase in the number of inspections planned for 2021/22.
He said the target is to conduct over 96 000 OHS inspections this year.
In terms of the Covid-19 Ters benefit, this began paying out from April 2020, and, as at March 31, 2021, payments had been made to 267 000 employers and to 5.4-million individual employees at a cost of R58.7-billion – providing support to laid-off workers, their families and communities across the country, acclaimed Nxesi.
However, he highlighted that the pandemic exposed the inadequate capacity of the State on many fronts.
Firstly, he mentioned that the payment of Covid-19 Ters benefits by the UIF quickly became exposed to fraud and corruption.
He expressed appreciation to the Office of the Auditor-General for its assistance in analysing systemic weaknesses requiring strengthened controls, and to the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) for investigating possible fraud and corruption.
Moreover, he also pointed to the UIF's 'follow the money' strategy to audit all employers that received Covid-19 Ters funding, which he said also helped to protect against fraud and corruption.
Through this, he said, the auditors verified payments of R16-billion and traced R228-million that was fraudulently claimed by employers.
Of the 121 employers that have already been reported to the Hawks through the Presidential Fusion Centre, 16 have appeared in court, Nxesi informed.
He noted that the pandemic had also exposed the shortcomings of the UIF and the country’s social security safety net, especially in terms of the informal sector, atypical employees and the 'gig economy'.
Meanwhile, Nexi also recognised the role of the Compensation Fund and the licensed mutual assurance companies, which have paid for medical treatment and the replacement of lost income for 12 500 claims over the last 12 months.
“These bodies have also set aside R1.3-billion, in terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases (COID) Act to fund vaccines for some three-million uninsured workers and COID pensioners,’’ he pointed out.
Meanwhile, Business Unity South Africa VP Martin Kingston highlighted that joint efforts between government, organised labour and business during the pandemic had engendered several key lessons that could be used moving forward, in tackling the third wave of Covid-19 and the vaccine rollout, as well as in pursuing economic recovery and sustainable growth.
Firstly, he emphasised the need for collaboration and alignment and an understanding that old approaches were not necessarily always fit for purpose.
He also noted the need for clear and committed decision-making.
Kingston also emphasised the need for prioritisation of key interventions and policies, as the country does not have the capacity to undertake everything at once.