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Labour union squabbles with MTN over COVID-19 in workplace

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 10 Jul 2020

Labour body Communication Workers Union (CWU) has come out swinging at MTN over its management of COVID-19 cases that have been recorded at its premises.

In a strongly-worded letter seen by ITWeb, the trade union accuses MTN of being non-complaint with COVID-19 regulations and victimising employees.

The clash between MTN and the trade union comes as SA is facing new concern about the rising COVID-19 spread, which has also hit the telecoms sector, resulting in dozens of stores around the country being closed.

In its letter, the CWU says MTN should play a role to protect employees and help prevent further spread of the virus.

MTN has dismissed the CWU’s claims, saying: “We reject the baseless and fear-mongering rhetoric of the CWU that holds absolutely no substance and serves only to create anxiety with our front-line employees, along with their families, whom have been our primary focus and concern since the outbreak of this pandemic.”

MTN SA’s executive for corporate affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan, says MTN has implemented strict control measures to ensure “we are fully-compliant with COVID-19 regulations and the specific conditions set out by the National Coronavirus Command Council and the Department of Health”.

The squabble between the union and the pan-African mobile carrier comes as the country recorded more than 13 000 new cases in the past 24 hours to reach 238 339 coronavirus cases.

“You need to take action to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. Long-term success cannot be taken for granted. All sections of our society – including businesses and employers – must play a role if we are to stop the spread of this disease. Please listen to your employees; it is important, as a responsible employer. It will be sad to see MTN closed because of non-compliance with COVID-19 regulations,” reads the letter addressed to Kenny Phuroe, litigation officer at MTN Group.

The letter adds: “We are informed that some of your employees have been tested positive and no action has been taken by the company to ensure that all the employees are protected and at the same time are not getting necessary assistance from the company. We are sad that those employees who tested positive have been away for a while.”

The CWU further accuses MTN of being insensitive to the plight of employees who have tested positive.

“The current COVID-19 outbreak has provoked social stigma and discriminatory behaviours against people of certain ethnic backgrounds, as well as anyone perceived to have been in contact with the virus. Please act responsibly and make sure that employees are protected and should be treated with respect and dignity,” says CWU.

In response, MTN says it has implemented a proactive staff testing campaign which is currently being rolled out in high-risk areas where there are large numbers of infections, or where there are possible human interactions such as those who use public transport.

O’Sullivan comments: “We have tested our employees working in stores, warehouse, network field operations, etc, across all provinces, including Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Gauteng. This medical testing is strictly for COVID-19.”

She continues: “Any MTN store or site in which an employee has tested positive, or where a customer may have been in-store where a positive case is later confirmed, is immediately closed for deep cleansing, sanitising and fumigation, and reopened with a shift of employees who have not tested positive nor been in direct contact with the impacted employee or infected customer.”

The telco also denies neglecting employees.

Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN SA.
Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN SA.

O’Sullivan explains: “Employees have access to MTN-sponsored counselling services. To ensure that our employees and customers are safe, MTN strictly enforces the safety protocols of wearing a mask at work, operating behind sneeze guards, regular use of hand sanitisers and regular cleaning of the work surfaces with sanitising cleaner.

“We screen all customers before entering our stores and we ensure customers sanitise their hands at the store entrance. Wearing of a mask or face covering is compulsory for all customers. Further, we limit the customer numbers in our stores to only one customer per sales agent and enforce social distancing both in store as well as outside our stores for queueing customers.”

MTN is not the only telco experiencing a COVID-19 headache.

Vodacom has confirmed 21 franchise stores were closed at some stage on a temporary basis due to the deadly virus.

Telkom has not been spared either, with “several cases of employees” at its stores testing positive for COVID-19, mostly in the Western Cape and Gauteng.

Cell C has also confirmed COVID-19 cases, saying since the initial lockdown, it had approximately 2% of its store employees test positive. This includes company-owned and franchise-owned employees.