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GSK factory in South Africa to reopen after 99 workers test positive for COVID-19

1 May, 2020When five workers tested positive for COVID-19 at the Epping plant of pharmaceutical multinational Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) in Cape Town, the Chemical Energy Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers Union (CEPPWAWU) raised an alarm with the management and the health authorities.

CEPPWAWU responded to workers’ pleas after COVID-19 positive cases continued to increase at the factory. The first case at the factory was reported on 7 April. However, when the factory temporarily closed on 22 April, 99 workers had tested positive. The workers are on quarantine at home receiving treatment.

The management says the factory has been deep cleaned and that personal protective equipment and sanitisers will be provided to workers. Further, the workers will be screened, and measures taken as per the company’s international supply chain protocols. Transport will also be provided to and from work between shifts and social distancing will be practised when the factory reopens. The department of labour and employment has approved the reopening. GSK makes medicines, vaccines and consumer health products and is an essential service as per lockdown regulations.

Welile Nolingo, CEPPWAWU, general secretary said:

“When workers told us they were working in fear after their colleagues tested positive to the coronavirus we met with the management and agreed that the factory be closed. We reminded the employers of their responsibility to take swift action on COVID-19.”

CEPPWAWU coordinated through IndustriALL with the GSK European Works Council, chaired by Unite shop steward Tomas O'Curraoin. In the spirit of international solidarity, Tomas raised the South African case directly with GSK’s most senior management and ensured that the proper process was followed to protect the workers’ safety at the Epping site.

Tom Grinter, the IndustriALL director of chemicals and pharmaceuticals said:

“The health and safety of workers is critical, especially when faced with the COVID-19 pandemic. GSK employs IndustriALL affiliates’ members around the world, and we are working to expand our relations with this global pharmaceuticals employer.”

Recent statistics from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) state that the Western Cape province is the epicentre of the coronavirus in the country, with 2,135 positive cases. According to the NICD, most infections take place at factories and shopping centres.

Some of the workers at GSK live in overcrowded conditions in informal settlements which make it impossible to exercise social distancing. The pandemic is exposing the poverty and inequality in South Africa with some informal settlements only managing to get regular supplies of water now because of government efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

South Africa went on lockdown on 26 March which continues with some factories and mines opening, but under stringent conditions that include operating at 50 per cent capacity.