Covid-19 fallout: Union alleges SABC manager said ‘self-isolation is not a disease’

Covid-19 fallout: Union alleges SABC manager said ‘self-isolation is not a disease’

Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

SABC staff and their union appear concerned at how the public broadcaster has dealt with the virus, but the the SABC board calls the accusations ‘false and alarmist’.

A union letter sent to SABC management has alleged they knew about a suspected case of Covid-19 “as early as 19 March”, but that this information “was deliberately withheld from staff”.

The correspondence has emerged after another SABC staff member contracted the coronavirus at its offices in Johannesburg. The staff member works at at its news research division and was hospitalised.

The staffer’s colleagues were told to work from home as a “contingency measure”. The employee also has a “close relative” working in the digital news department, according to SABC internal emails.

On Sunday, SABC acting spokesperson Mmoni Seapolelo confirmed the news, saying the broadcaster was “taking the necessary measures to stay healthy and safe”.

However, a widely circulated letter from the Broadcasting, Electronic, Media & Allied Workers’ Union (Bemawu) accuses management of endangering the “life and health of all SABC employees at News and elsewhere and furthermore the lives of people who came into contact with the exposed employee”.

“SABC management, including Human Resources, also did not act on this information to take reasonable precaution to ensure the possible spread of the virus.”

Instead, staff who were released to work from home were allegedly called back to work by their manager, who informed them “self-isolation is not a disease”, according to Bemawu.

“We believe there was a legal duty on the SABC to, at the very least, communicate the fact that an employee was in contact with a Covid-19-positive person to forewarn and prepare others to take extra precaution to not get infected and also infect their loved ones. We furthermore believe there was a legal duty to, at that point in time, close down the SABC building, test and send home all news and current affairs staff to prevent a situation where they may infect other people.”

The union further alleged that on 18 March there had been another suspected Covid-19 infection, which had allegedly also not been communicated to staff.

They said that SABC staff came into contact with key leaders throughout society, including government, and greater precautions should have been taken.

“We urge you once again to, without delay, release staff not involved in News and Current Affairs to work from home or to stay home if they are unable to work from home … furthermore, to allow journalists and studio personnel to not attend the SABC building. To put in place measures to allow those journalists to work from a safe place, if not from home during the production process.”

They also called for the urgent testing of all employees exposed to the employee who had tested positively.

They further demanded the immediate suspension of the manager who had allegedly not shown due care, as well as the human resources manager “and any other manager instrumental in not releasing/calling back employees in the circumstances”.

“The SABC should cease the use of biometrics as there is no proof sanitiser indeed kills the virus. Essential staff must use their cards, if needed, at SABC.”

The SABC board denied all Bemawu’s allegations and threatened that they might have to take “further action” against them if they continued to spread false accusations and “fake news”.

They said the union was trying to score points and was being “alarmist”; they denied that anyone had been forced to come to work and that they had done all they could to ensure the safety of staff.

You can read their response below:

The SABC’s first confirmed case of coronavirus occurred at its Northern Cape headquarters in Kimberley.

The union further alleged: “We have been informed the Kimberley staff have been ordered to return to work on Monday. They have not yet received their test results and/or completed the quarantine period.

“This clearly cannot happen.”

The employee who tested positive also did not receive any communication from the Head of News or any other senior manager of the SABC. One would have at least expected the SABC to call this employee and sympathise with her condition.

“We have also been informed sales staff are required to continue to contact businesses to attempt to sell advertising, this whilst all non-essential businesses are closed. They are micromanaged in this respect and threatened with disciplinary action should they not do so.”

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