The Joint meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Employment and Labour – and the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, Economic Development, Small Business Development, Tourism, Employment and Labour that took place yesterday received a briefing from the Department of Employment and Labour, Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), Compensation Fund (CF), and Inspections and Enforcement on, among other things, experiences, challenges and future plans regarding Covid-19 during the extended lockdown period, and going forward.

The Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Labour and Employment, Ms Lindelwa Dunjwa, commended the stimulus package that was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa in response to the immense challenges brought by Covid-19 on the workers and businesses that are currently in distress due to the pandemic.

Briefing the joint committee, the Minister of Employment and Labour, Mr Thulas Nxesi, said mor than 600,000 workers have benefited from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) relief scheme since the declaration of the Covid-19 lockdown.

According to Mr Nxesi his department continues to process claims as they come in and are also finalising applications which will be paid out shortly from the bargaining councils and employer associations in the engineering, textile and clothing, restaurants and catering as well as the metal sectors. Together these sectors, he said, represent almost 1.8-million workers.

Mr Nxesi, commended Members of Parliament for their effort to hold the executive accountable for its interventions during this period. He reiterated that the various stimulus funds that were introduced by government are meant to mitigate the severe effect of Covid-19 on labour and companies directly affected by the advent of the virus. To this effect, he told the joint committee that more than R1.6 billion relief fund has been set up for a temporary relief for affected employers and employees.

To date, the Minister claimed that his ministry is finalising applications from various bargain councils for well more than 1.8 million workers in order for them to benefit from the fund to ease their plight during the lockdown. “We encourage workers to pay and claim from the fund,” he said.

Mr Nxesi said it was apparent to the department that it would be faced with a massive challenge of serving the 1.8 million UIF beneficiaries if the fund were to observe the current protocol governing social distancing, hence it turned to automation as a solution to that. This has, according to him, resulted in a mass disbursement of funds to date.

In his view, the department’s idea of harnessing automated interventions to come up with a new disbursement regime that would make the stimulus package more accessible to the beneficiaries in a manner that is hassle-free, is currently paying off.

He said this involves, among other things, the enhancement of the capacity of the UIF call centre from 25 to 200 personnel to ensure that people are not just safe from infection, the process is also hassle-free.

Mr Nxesi thanked the banking sector for being supportive in this regard. He called for communication and transparency in this period as that is vital. He said claims to various stimulus packages must be done in an honest manner and must meet all the criteria for the workers to be processed swiftly, without any further delay.

Mr Nxesi said: “Where there are claims of delay in UIF payment, it is because some of the claimants did not meet the requirements set up to benefit them from the fund.”

Members of the joint committee asked Minster Nxesi how the department intended to address claims by unions that health workers at some hospitals are not provided with the necessary equipment to prevent them from infections with coronavirus.

The Director-General of Department of Labour, Mr Thobile Lamati, replied that “as soon as the health and safety committees resume their work, they will ensure that employers comply with the required measures that govern those types of occupations deemed as essential services”.

The Minister added: “The issue of health and safety of our front line staff is critical, it’s non-negotiable. We sharply raised this with the Health Department. This would be an approach that would “even dictate how the department deals with this post-lockdown.”

When asked by members of the joint committee about allegations of the department’s inability to deal with the flood of UIF and Compensation Fund applications at its door, Mr Lamati replied that out of 55 000 applications received to date, more than 37 000 of them have been successfully processed.

Furthermore he said: “Well over R1.6 billion has been paid out to employers and employees by various entities of the department. Those that were not settled, the reason is because they did not meet the requirements prescribed to access these relief funds.”

On the effects of retrenchments and the possible closure of companies due to the lockdown, Mr Nxesi said retrenchments and possible closures of companies is a reality the government and the country have to face head-on post-lockdown.

As such, he said: “We are anticipating a huge backlog of such cases at the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) after this period. Unfortunately, the CCMA has to brace itself for that.”

On companies’ collusion in increasing prices, he decried this tendency and said there is definitely a trend of raising prices of necessary goods – and of market manipulation. “This cannot be tolerated, relevant departments will deal with that, to put an end to it,” he said.

Ms Dunjwa concluded by reiterating that the joint committee saw it fit to invite the department to clarify some of its interventions as workers and businesses are more affected by the pandemic. He urged the Minister to ensure that the poor and the working class are cushioned against the devastating effects of the lockdown.

By Abel Mputing
23 April 2020