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VW neglected Covid-19 health and safety protocols, says union

13 August, 2020IndustriALL Global Union affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) has condemned the violation of Covid-19 protocols by Volkswagen South Africa at its plant in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape province.

On 17 July, workers at the plant exercised their right to withdraw from an unsafe workplace as granted by the Occupational Safety and Health Act after 120 workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

An investigation by the department of employment and labour confirmed that the auto company had violated the return to work regulations.

The union disputes the claim by VW that the workers were infected in the community and not at work. NUMSA says workers' health and safety was further compromised by VW’s “irrational and unfair policy” that workers who get Covid-19 through community transmission are not entitled to special sick leave, and periods of isolation. Instead the quarantine days are taken off the normal annual leave.

Fourteen shop stewards were suspended for refusing to work in an unsafe workplace. NUMSA has negotiated the lifting of their suspension, and says VW must stop threatening workers for exercising their rights. Instead the company should deal with the workers’ demands for a safer workplace.

The Volkswagen global works council has raised the issue with the headquarters of the company, and negotiations are now underway to resolve the issue.

Irvin Jim, NUMSA general secretary says:

 “VW insulated its managers and office staff from Covid-19 by allowing them to work from home, whilst ordinary workers were required to return to work in May 2020 without complying with the 50 per cent stipulation in the regulations.

“Morning and afternoon shifts continued to operate at full capacity, thereby not only transgressing the regulations, but also forcing ordinary workers to work in unsafe circumstances where social distancing is impossible. Not surprisingly, from an initial two confirmed cases, the infection rate amongst workers increased rapidly.”

Paule France Ndessomin, IndustriALL regional secretary for Sub Saharan Africa says:

“Social distancing is a challenge in the automotive plants, and this means companies like VW should carefully follow the regulations as stipulated in the return to work controls in order to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.”

With the Covid-19 pandemic spreading, South Africa’s national department of health said on 11 August the Eastern Cape had 82,715 confirmed cases, 2,286 deaths, and 13,478 recoveries.

However, workers welcomed VW’s donation of a disused vehicle parts warehouse and ZAR 25 million (US$1,4 million) for use as a Covid-19 field hospital in Port Elizabeth saying it is a “good gesture” that will help the public. The field hospital, which is also supported by the German government, will have a capacity of 3,300 beds that will help to ease the pressure on public hospitals that are running out of beds due to the pandemic.