To many who are working, the idea of working from home seemed, until now, self-liberating and even glamorous but the Covid-19 lockdown has proved the opposite.
Working from home as it is often presented as one of the advantages that will accompany the rise of the 4IR – the Fourth Industrialisation.
The lockdown experience is highlighting the downside that has thus far received less scrutiny. The six weeks national lockdown to the Covid-19 virus comes as a free experiment to the actual ramifications on workers and the country at large.
It has become clear that it may not be the best situation for most workers, both employed and self-employed.
For the employed lucky not to be put on forced leave, special arrangements had to be made by the employer. These included laptops, data and software and the cost implications are likely to be considered in future wage and benefits negotiations.
Further, anecdotal evidence suggests the envisaged increase in productivity is not being realised – the opposite is happening. Some workers have indicated it involves changing one’s mindset from domestic responsibilities to work requirements in the same space. This is harder than they had anticipated.
Then there is a category of workers whose employers have decided to temporarily close business during the lockdown. These workers are eligible to claim for compensation under the National Disaster Benefit Fund and Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) as long as the employers are registered with the UIF. Beyond the process to go through, the benefit receivable has been capped for the duration of the lockdown or a maximum of three months, whichever is shorter. For this category, it has literally pushed them to the edge of unemployment with a small survival cushion of R3,500 per month.
Most employers closing are local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that are also at risk of being pushed out of business by hi-tech multinationals in the 4IR era.
Then there is a category of self-employed workers running small businesses or shops, whose income depends on actual sale of goods or services. These have been the most affected.
Many have closed their businesses.
For them, working from home means not working at all. It is plainly forced unemployment. Although in the second week government said some self-employed workers could get permits to operate, their cashflow and livelihood has been severely affected. For those with bank debts to service, the lockdown is likely to be the start of their journey to insolvency.
People will be able, and are already able, to purchase goods and services online. All big supermarkets have implemented online and delivery transactions and this business model will be maintained and perfected. The momentum of displacing and occupying the market space of the self-employed is likely to continue going forward.
Ultimately, as SA prepares for the 4IR, the security of workers could be in jeopardy.
It clear that working from home can only be possible for workers whose employers have resources to make this feasible. Moreover, it does not come with a guarantee of increased productivity or happiness. Many workers will be left out of this arrangement.
To make matters worse, working from home carries an inherent risk – when the employed adapt to an online lifestyle which does not support SSMEs and the self-employed, indirectly increasing unemployment.
– Dr Kaggwa is an executive research director at Sam Tambani Research Institute