The Covid 19 Pandemic has placed many fundamental rights of workers at greater risk as South Africa faces increases in poverty, inequality and vulnerability. The economic shockwaves have placed unprecedented pressure on the world of work and the workers and employers whose livelihoods depend on it. Taking into account that prior to the pandemic South Africa had a high rate of unemployment, and millions of workers were already in vulnerable situations. The Covid 19 has accelerated the crisis and incised the devastating consequences. It placed the fundamental rights of workers under threat, pushing them and their families towards greater insecurity. These disruptions have emphasized the vulnerability and precarious employment status of some workers and have exposed a widespread lack of adequate safeguards necessary to protect workers and enforce rights in times of crisis.
The lack of a social safety network and worker protection leads to significant negative impacts on individuals, and in turn, on markets and broader society. The job losses caused by the pandemic have also highlighted the challenging conditions in which many workers live from paycheck to paycheck, are unable to set aside savings, and, in many cases, are dependent on state aid to subsist. As businesses have navigated the crisis, their actions have also been impacted. There are also broader implications for the rights of workers who have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or seen their hours reduced. For those workers who have lost their jobs or faced reduced hours, there has been a divergence in how their employers or government have protected them. However, many were left without access to healthcare or financial support. Some companies laid off hundreds, sometimes thousands of workers via zoom calls in a matter of minutes. For workers in the informal economy, this resulted in a loss of their livelihoods. Where governments distributed emergency packages, informal workers did not always qualify as recipients. The precarious situation of vulnerable workers, with little or no savings, large debt, and no social safety net, meant that many were unable to support themselves or their families. This was exacerbated by lockdowns and travel bans which meant that they were also unable to find alternative sources of income.
The adverse effects of the crisis are not of course, distributed equally. They are being felt most by those who already belong to the most vulnerable and least protected segments of society, including the poor and socially excluded, workers and producers in the informal economy, migrant workers, people subject to discrimination, and those living in contexts of fragility, conflict and recurrent natural disasters. For them, the crisis is likely to exacerbate the risks of child labour, forced labour, discrimination in employment and occupation, and disempowerment. Thus, safeguarding and extending fundamental principles and rights at work in the post-pandemic is crucial to the success of both immediate and longer-term responses to the crisis in the world of work. Protecting workers’ rights can play a vital role in recovery from the Covid 19 crisis and help build back a better, more equitable world of work.
Recently the International Labour Organization (ILO) issued a paper on Covid 19 and fundamental principles and rights at work which provides a comprehensive overview of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on all four important principles and rights at work. These are child labour, forced labour, discrimination, freedom of association and collective bargaining. The paper highlights the importance of mainstreaming them into COVID-19 responses to ensure such responses are inclusive. It details how a downward spiral into informality, poverty and exploitation can be reversed to build back better and to leave no one. It also alerts that the urgent need for an integrated response to the pandemic has not yet been met.
The issue paper, which was published by the FUNDAMENTALS branch of the ILO, finds that limits on freedom of movement and public gatherings, enforced during lockdowns as part of some national pandemic responses, made the realization of rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining more difficult, both in law and practice, which in turn hampered the development of responses to the crisis rooted in social consensus. In particular, the paper says, this impacted a number of people working in the informal economy who often lack a collective and representative voice. The paper proposes a four-pillar policy framework for the response to COVID-19 based on international labour standards. These cover stimulating the economy and employment, supporting enterprises, jobs and incomes, protecting workers in the workplace, and relying on social dialogue for solutions.
Recent initiatives to identify and address child labour and forced labour in global supply chains are also now in jeopardy, as businesses at all levels struggle to cope with the crisis and the severe demand shocks associated with it. Economic and other shocks, like those associated with the pandemic, are known to exacerbate child labour as families try new strategies to survive. They also often lead to debt bondage and an increased reliance on informal recruitment agencies and platforms, which leave workers more exposed to exploitation. Access to quality education is also crucial for preventing child labour since a number of children have been affected by school closures during the pandemic. Most of these children had no access to remote learning, and many relied on free school meals and cash transfers conditional on school attendance.
Support for forced labour victims and survivors is being rechannelled towards the pandemic response. The pandemic has also exposed discrimination against different groups of workers and the entrenched gender inequalities in labour markets and in unpaid care work. A new wave of xenophobia and stigma has found expression in the world of work, and pre-existing discrimination regarding employment and occupation has intensified in South Africa.
Investors have a responsibility and a crucial role to play in protecting workers in the post-pandemic. Poor and inadequate management of labour and human rights risks can expose businesses to legal, operational, and reputational risks. On the legal front, lawsuits have been brought against some big companies in the country that allegedly did not take the necessary safety precautions and therefore failed to fulfil their duty of care to their workers. Other companies were forced to stop the commercial activity until they had put the necessary safety measures in place. Over recent months, corporate practices have also been scrutinized by civil society organizations and the media, and it is reasonable to expect that, in some cases, this will have repercussions in terms of brand reputation.
Where there are immediate concerns with respect to labour rights linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, companies should engage in dialogue with workers. Discussions should include but not be limited to occupational health and safety concerns, access to paid sick leave and healthcare, and freedom of association and collective bargaining. Workers should be able to express concerns via appropriate channels and with no fear of retaliation. They should be consulted throughout the crisis, including on issues around lay-offs and human capital management plans.
Fundamental principles and rights at work can play a vital role in building effective, consensus-based responses that support recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and help build back a better, more just world of work. The focus and the priority should be on protecting people’s lives which can be achieved by protecting livelihoods. The particular strength of these fundamental principles is their interrelated and mutually reinforcing nature. Basing our policies around them paves the way for a recovery that is socially and economically inclusive and ensures that the needs of the most vulnerable are taken into account.
Dr Norah Hashim Msuya is an academician and researcher. She writes in her personal capacity.