As Eskom battles with a staggering debt of R435 billion, concerns have been raised about the impact of nationwide load shedding for businesses, including potential job losses. This debt figure was announced by Public Enterprises acting director general Thuto Shomang on Wednesday, who said it represented 15% of South Africa’s sovereign debt.
The rotational blackouts have had severe impacts on some businesses, reducing productivity and increasing the loss of valuable stock. Coupled with this, were issues raised by labour federation Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) which saw thousands of members participate in nation wide strikes across the country on Wednesday.
COSATU said it is ready to engage with government on Eskom’s unbundling, as announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his State of The Nation on 7 February, but on the condition that there is no privatization, no job losses and no electricity price hikes.
Last week, Ramaphosa announced that Eskom would be split into three entities – generation, transmission and distribution – which would fall under the company Eskom Holdings.
Additionally, government would support Eskom’s balance sheet, the details of which are expected to be revealed in the National Budget, to be delivered by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni on February 20.
COSATU president Zingiswa Losi called on the ANC government not to hand over the responsibility of electricity generation to the private sector.
“As Cosatu, we said we’re ready to engage with the ANC government about this unbundling of Eskom, but we must agree on three things with the government: that you may call it whatever you want to call it, but jobs must not be lost; electricity costs must not go up; and we don’t want privatisation,” said Losi.
Attorney in the labour department of Macgregor Erasmus Attorneys in Cape Town, David Arnold, explained that as productivity will naturally be affected, employers need to start thinking of creative ways of avoiding job losses.
One such option to combat the impact of possible job losses, Arnold said, would be to enforce flexible hours and working arrangements, which may include overtime. Arnold clarifies however that employers cannot impose the overtime on workers and an agreement has to be reached.
“Labour laws (work to) balance the interest of the employee and employer, but it is always via an agreement.”
However, Arnold warned that continuous refusal to work overtime can also indicate that workers are unwilling to be flexible.
“The employer might take the perspective that you are not operationally fit to work in the environment because you continuously refuse to work overtime, and they might take other steps. But the general rule is that overtime is via agreement.”
He went on to describe alternative options such as “compressed working” weeks, which will see the number of hours worked split up or spread out to cover the working hours needed. For example, Arnold explained, if the number of required hours is 40 per week, instead of working 8 hours a day employees can work 12 hours for 4 days.
He also noted that any person that works more than 4 hours a day, is entitled to a full day’s pay.
Another option would be averaging of hours over a few months. This means the number of hours worked a week could be reduced and then extended the following week, to cover a total number of expected hours.
In very dire situations, the employer may also reduce overall working hours to avoid job losses.
Arnold pointed out that this too requires an agreement to be reached through a thorough consultation process, particularly if the reduced amount of hours will affect the expected salary.
Listen to interview here: