Staff at Checkers in Rylands protested outside the store on Friday, claiming management refused to close the shop for Covid-19 decontamination after seven of their colleagues tested positive for Covid-19.
The workers said they were forced to protest as management had ignored their grievances over safety. The shop was eventually closed for decontamination just after 11am – three hours after the protest started.
According to Department of Health Covid-19 guidelines, a workplace should be closed temporarily if many employees show symptoms or if the number of positive cases is “considerably large”. But a workplace closure can be prevented if it is “rapidly cleaned, all surfaces disinfected and all items decontaminated”, and if other “unaffected workers” are screened timeously.
One of the staff, Gouwa Kannemeyer, said they had heard on Friday April 17 about the first Covid-19 case.
“When I enquired, I was called in with a shop steward, informing us that they received a call about a positive case, but that management was waiting for official paperwork from the health department. I agreed to waiting for the paperwork. Later, when we heard of a second case, all controllers asked for the store to be closed and deep cleaned. We even handed over a memorandum to management pertaining to that. Then they told us it was fake news. Most of the staff were only screened on Saturday May 2, and told to clock in. As far as I understood it, there was still no decontamination that happened at that stage,” Ms Kannemeyer said.
She said she had consulted her doctor who had referred her for testing at Groote Schuur, but the test had come back negative.
“I am high risk. I might be negative now, but what about later? By continuing to work under these conditions, I’m not only putting myself at risk, but I’m killing my community. We are all like family here, and I don’t want to kill my colleagues who have become my family. It’s cruel to keep quiet. It is totally wrong. My family comes to shop here. How long must we wait? Many of us had to arrange our own tests. Management also do not check on our sick colleagues,” she said.
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“They rather tell us about ‘no work, no pay’. We help to make millions for this store – all we are asking is for them to help arrange the testing and to close for decontamination. They say the health department must close the store,” Ms Kannemeyer said.
Another staff member, Nawaal Barnes, said management had threatened they would lose their jobs if they joined the Friday protest. She said management had told staff that the store had been decontaminated overnight after the first case had come to light on April 17, but staff had their doubts.
“They keep speaking to us about protocols, and that only government can close the store. However, we have proof from government, confirming the one case. This is not fair towards us as workers. We just want to be safe and to keep our families safe,” Ms Barnes said.
EFF members also joined the protest. Ward 46 proportional representative (PR) councillor and branch chairperson, Faranaaz Gaffoor, said staff had contacted her party for assistance.
“About two weeks ago, one of the staff members phoned to say they had one positive case. After they had a meeting with their management and human resources department, another positive case was confirmed. The store management then got a nurse here to do screening, but the nurse arrived with no equipment. The staff had to give her hand sanitiser. She did not even have a thermometer.
“They did not inform staff to go to a public facility to get tested, hence they were expecting the tests to be done at the store. Even with seven cases, they still refused to close the store and staff were threatened that they could get fired if they joined the protest.”
John Leonard, from the South African Catering Commercial Allied Workers Union (Saccawu) told staff outside the shop that gatherings were prohibited under the state of disaster. He called for calm and urged them to “diffuse and resolve the situation”.
“I was here on May 2, when there was one confirmed case. I know your concern, but let us work together to resolve this. Let us operate in a professional manner,” Mr Leonard said.
The Shoprite Group confirmed there had been Covid-19 cases at the store but would not say how many, citing confidentiality. It also didn’t say why the store wasn’t closed immediately after the first case was confirmed. Instead it simply outlined the protocol it followed, including notifying
When asked why the store was not closed immediately after the first case was confirmed, the group’s media office responded: “When there is confirmation of positive testing for Covid-19, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) and Department of Health.
In cases where stores were closed for deep cleaning, the group said, a professional decontamination company used a fogging process in the early evening.
“This was also the case at Checkers Rylands Village and entails spraying a fine mist which covers all surfaces and provides a general layer of virus and bacteria protection for a period of seven days. Only food safe chemicals are used. Once a certificate of compliance is issued, the store reopens in consultation with the provincial Department of Health.”
The Shoprite Group also confirmed that Checkers Rylands Village had closed on Friday May 15 for another decontamination and further screening of employees.
The store would open in consultation with various government departments, the group said.
“The well-being of our employees and customers is and will remain our top priority.”
Staff were not expected to have themselves tested privately, and would be referred to the nearest public testing laboratory, if necessary, the statement said.
On Monday May 18, the store was still closed.
The provincial Health Department referred the Athlone News to the store when asked for comment.