South African civil service ‘return to work’ drive sparks safety fears

By on 11/05/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Minister Senzo Mchunu announced on 8 May that more civil servants will be required to return to the workplace to “facilitate the unlocking of the economy”. (Photo courtesy: GCIS via GovernmentZA/flickr).

The South African government has asked many civil servants to return to work, sparking criticism from the Public Servants Association (PSA) union – which warns that plans for ensuring health and safety in the workplace have not been fully implemented.  

The country’s public service and administration minister, Senzo Mchunu, announced on 8 May that more government employees would need to return to the workplace “to facilitate the unlocking of the economy” and to provide services “over and above other basic services that were part of the critical and essential services during the lockdown period”. He said the government would be developing plans to enable civil servants to return to work safely, which so far include departments setting up internal COVID-19 Steering Committees to ensure service delivery while protecting staff and staggering civil servants’ arrival at offices and lunchbreaks.  

However, the PSA – a union representing around 240,000 public servants – noted that many government employees had returned to the workplace prior to Mchunu’s address, and said that some protective measures are not yet in place.  “The minister was surely aware that a vast number of public servants have already, since 4 May 2020, been recalled, reporting for duty [at] various departments and agencies,” the PSA said in a statement, as reported by the African News Agency. The union claims that staff have been recalled despite there being a lack of personal protection equipment (PPE) and a lack of measures to screen employees or ensure the deep cleaning of offices.

“[Mchunu’s] acknowledgement is late, and preparations should have been made before employees were recalled. The PSA is aware that many public servants were already recalled to the workplace and in some instances sent back [to work from home], thereby causing unnecessary and further exposure to the virus,” the PSA said. It added that it “would not allow its members to be exposed to dangerous working conditions unnecessarily”.

Public unable to access vital services

It noted that there have been instances where department buildings had reopened and then closed again because they were found to be failing to comply with the government’s ‘return to work’ regulations, and that such instances had left the “general public frustrated because they are unable to access vital services”.

For example, several Home Affairs offices – in Gauteng, the Western Cape, Mpumalanga and Limpopo – have been shut by the Department of Labour because they did not comply with safety measures designed to protect staff and citizens, such as the installation of protective glass partitions. According to reports, the Home Affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi rejects the labour department’s reasoning. He said partitions would take months to install but that staff have been given face screens and gloves, and added that the Home Affairs department had appealed the Department of Labour’s decision and is now considering legal action.

In its statement, the PSA said that each department applied and interpreted regulations differently and that this risked exposing employees and members of the public to the virus. It strongly advised Mchunu to ensure that public servants did not return to the workplace without having the necessary equipment and safety measures in place, and that all workplaces complied with the COVID-19 regulations and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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