Yip, these are historical times. As things stand, the lockdown will be uplifted from 1 May 2020, maybe. As has been the case in our sector of labour relations consulting to employers across the country, and indeed many others, the hitherto lesser known benefits of working remotely, have been revealed to our own consultancy, and our clients alike. But more of that in future articles.
For now, the world of work has, like the rest of society worldwide, received a body blow of the like we have never seen before, and are hopefully unlikely to see again any time soon. The Covid-19 pandemic has already pole-axed thousands of jobs, and is likely to continue to do so, in our estimation, until at least the second quarter of 2021.
During the lockdown, our firm’s interaction with clients has, in the main, been dominated by the UIF TERS benefit application process, and retrenchments, not to mention putting the final touches to the launch of our first online training workshop “Managing discipline & dismissal at the workplace” (watch this space …).
But what can we expect the labour relations environment to look like during the first hundred days after the national lockdown? We think that the hot topics in that first hundred days are already quite apparent.
First and foremost is the health and safety of staff. Employers have a duty and statutory obligation to protect staff in the face of Covid-19. This will require a thorough audit of all health and safety practices, procedures and personal protective equipment.
Next, the CCMA and Bargaining Councils, together with the labour courts, have a massive backlog to deal with. Our guestimate is that the CCMA alone will have a backlog of approximately 20 000 cases, of which approximately 16 000 will be unfair dismissal cases. Tag that onto an already burdensome 850, or so, cases being referred to the CCMA daily across the country, and you can immediately begin to fathom the challenge ahead. Of course, there will be far fewer misconduct, and even incapacity, related dismissals, and therefore related disputes, referred during the lockdown period, but the raft of retrenchments during the lockdown period may more than compensate for the lesser number of misconduct and incapacity disputes during the same period. Time will tell. Regardless, the cases set-down for the lockdown period will also add to the backlog. The CCMA will no doubt be aware of this and already planning its contingencies.
Perhaps the most dominant feature of the labour relations environment during the first hundred days post-lockdown, will be inevitable widespread retrenchments and short-time. There will no doubt have been a number of employers who have retrenched, or started retrenchment consultations, during the lockdown, relying on section 189, or 189A of the Labour Relations Act. We have advised our clients not to do so however, in the understanding that when all is said and done, and regardless of the availability of rock-star technology enabling virtual face-to-face communication, many employees don’t have access to such technology, and besides, whether we like it or not, there are question marks over the ethics of retrenching employees remotely. Some employers, on the other hand, may have been faced with no other option, given their financial plight. None the less, we have encouraged our clients not to be the test case on this issue.
That said, the upliftment of the lockdown will present employers with the opportunity to initiate section 189 and 189A Labour Relations Act processes. The socio-economic impact of doing so is obvious. Yet many employers will literally have no other option, if they wish to keep their doors open. Let’s not forget, many companies won’t be reopening. A huge number that do, in some sectors more than others, will be retrenching, and/or placing staff on short-time. Employer labour consultancies like ours have already been briefed by clients on the commencement of statutory retrenchment procedures the very second the lockdown is uplifted.
Finally, expect turmoil in the public sector with the tightening of Treasury’s belt, especially in light of the impact of Covid-19 of the fiscus.
There you have it, our take on the labour relations landscape in the first hundred days after lockdown.