Date: May 1, 2020

The workers of tomorrow must be protected today

As South Africa and the world marks International Workers’ Day, our hearts and minds turn to the frontline health workers tackling COVID-19 head-on, many of them putting their own lives at risk to save the lives of others. We think of the service and administrative staff that have kept hospitals, towns and cities going whilst the majority of us have been in lockdown. They’ve kept the streets clean, the refuse removed as well as the food and other essentials produced and delivered. These workers have kept the cogs of society turning as the world holds its breath.

International Workers’ Day is an anniversary that honours the international labour movement, and this year it may feel like there’s not a lot to celebrate. However, the vital role of the worker in society cannot be ignored. Not only those in essential services but also those that have lost their jobs or whose jobs are on hold, those that work to keep their families fed and afloat and those that work simply to survive and are now struggling.

This is the world’s reality, but there will be a Future World, a Future South Africa. And the future of the worker is crucial in this.

As further job cuts and layoffs are announced almost every day, employers and the government must safeguard the livelihoods of workers during COVID-19 to avoid worsened inequality, poverty, unemployment and suffering, issues that already plagued South Africa prior to the pandemic.

Moreover, the government must protect South Africa’s future workers: our learners.

As the Department of Basic Education (DBE) announced its plans to re-open schools yesterday, Amnesty International South Africa reiterates our call that it must put human rights at the centre of all its actions every step of the way, while the pandemic continues but also after it ends.

Learners, teachers, support staff and parents must know exactly what they can expect and what public health, water and sanitation measures will be established and maintained to keep them safe. This must be publicly and clearly communicated in a transparent, accountable and progressive manner.

Our report, released in February, highlighted that, out of 23,471 public schools, 4,358 still had only illegal pit latrines for sanitation and 37 schools had no sanitation facilities whatsoever. Our field research found some schools lack both decent sanitation and a reliable water supply. At a time when access to water and sanitation is of utmost importance to stay healthy, the lack of this essential provision in schools is deeply worrying.

The DBE must work urgently with the Department for Water and Sanitation to ensure that all schools in South Africa have access to sufficient, safe and reliable water and sanitation without delay. After years of repeated failings and missed targets, there is no better time to start fixing South Africa’s poor education infrastructure. The empty schools provide a perfect opportunity for workers to build and install proper infrastructure in schools without risking their health. Now is the time to fix this problem, once and for all.

We acknowledge that these are uncertain and difficult times for everyone, including for the government, but this pandemic is not only a health crisis, it is a human rights crisis, and if our workers and our learners are not protected now, we cannot expect them to build and contribute to the Future South Africa.

Amnesty International South Africa’s campaign, Right To Water: Turn On The Tap, calls for the government to recognise that many people in South Africa are denied their constitutional right to water, and to publicly commit to providing equal access to water for everyone – now and always.

Take action here and tell the government to #TurnOnTheTap.

Shenilla Mohamed is Executive Director of Amnesty International South Africa. She is a journalist, editor and human rights activist and defender and her career spans over three decades.