The World Health Organisation (WHO) on the 11th of March 2020 declared the Covid 19 (coronavirus) a pandemic.[i] At the point of writing this article, a total of 169 countries and territories[ii] have been affected by the virus and Zimbabwe declared this situation a national disaster on the 17th of March 2020.[iii]

Some companies in this country have started making changes in their operations to curtail the impact of the virus. In this article, I outline what practitioners need to be wary of, from a labour law perspective, as they make changes in their systems in response to this virus.

Sick Leave

Sick leave is one area we all need to be wary of.

Those suspected to be infected by the virus are normally quarantined for purposes of observation. In most cases, people are quarantined when doctors observe some signs and symptoms of Covid 19 like fever and coughing. Once one is quarantined for such observation, I’m of the view that the sick leave provisions in the labour Act (Section 14) should start to apply.

There can also be instances where an employee so quarantined may not be able to request for sick leave in terms of the Labour Act provisions (Section 14(2) of the Labour Act as amended). Companies through their HR departments need to be prudent enough to enquire on the whereabouts of their employees. In some cases, this may warrant that such companies amend their policies to accommodate employees in these predicaments.

The same applies to employees who would have been diagnosed with the virus. Such employees may not be able to communicate their request for sick leave. This is where companies should to wear a human heart and diligently find out about the well-being of their employees. Such may also require policy changes to allow employees, in such circumstances, grace periods for them to get ample time to communicate their intentions to apply for sick leave.

Companies will also need to be wary of the fact that employees may take advantage of the fact that this virus is dreaded so much that one would not want to be near an infected employee. In such instances, unscrupulous employees may take advantage and fail to report for duty on the pretext that they have the virus. In this respect, Human Resources will need to insist on an employee providing a “certificate signed by a registered medical practitioner” as prescribed under Section 14 indicated above.

Unpaid Leave

In certain countries, employees have been sent on unpaid leave as companies battle to contain the spread of the virus.  For most organisations, such unpaid leave was implemented to avoid having to dismiss the employees as production plummeted.

Under section 12D (2) An employer may agree with the employees concerned, or with any workers, a committee to come up with these measures. Whilst these measures may take various forms, section 12D specifically provides for the placement of the employees on short-time work or instituting a system of shifts. Employees will then be paid for the actual hours they would have worked. The period that the employee is not engaged in full-time employment will be considered as unpaid leave. It is crucial to note that such measures will have to be implemented for a period not exceeding twelve months.

Communication with employees

As organisations contemplate changes in their systems there is a need to keep employees informed of the changes that may come.

Section 12D of the Labour Act discussed above, provides that employers are under an obligation to communicate all the changes they are making at the earliest possible opportunity. Such communication can be implemented electronically using such mediums as WhatsApp and emails.

Non-Discrimination of Employees

In certain countries, certain races have been subject of discriminatory and xenophobic attacks.

Mainly because the virus commenced in China discrimination against Chinese nationals has been rife across the world. Employers should remain wary of section 5 of the Labour Act which does protect employees against discrimination of any sort.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line remains that organisations will have to come up with innovative ways of responding to this virus. In the process of manoeuvring the inevitable, we need to keep ourselves informed of the provisions in our labour laws.

Our hearts go out to those who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic!




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