Dis-Chem is taking heat for charging staff for some Covid-19 tests, but says it’s complicated

Business Insider SA
  • Dis-Chem is being criticised for not proving free Covid-19 testing for its staff.
  • According to an internal document, it is charging R500 for employee tests that come back negative.
  • But Dis-Chem says that only applies to staff who insist on test despite showing no symptoms, and who refuse to opt for free state tests instead.
  • The company announced this week that it will offer South Africans without a job or medical aid free testing for the coronavirus. 
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.

Pharmaceutical retailer Dis-Chem is being criticised for offering free Covid-19 testing to South Africans who may not be able to pay for it themselves, but not providing free testing for its employees unless they turn out to actually have Sars-CoV-2.

The company announced this week that it had partnered with the Solidarity Fund to provide free testing to South Africans in need. To qualify, applicants can't be a member of a medical scheme nor be employed. Other criteria may include whether the person is a pensioner, disabled, or orphaned.

At the same time the company is asking its own employees to pay for Covid-19 test, if those turn out to be negative – though Dis-Chem says it's a little more complicated than a badly-worded internal document suggests.

The Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO), an organisation which provides free advice to employees, and which has been advocating on behalf on Dis-Chem employees, brands the free Covid-19 testing as "a media exercise to restore their public image."

According to Lynford Dor, media and education officer at CWAO, Dis-Chem requires "their own workers at their Midrand Distribution Centre to pay for tests that return negative, after requiring workers to go for testing in the first place. It is clear to us that workers are not sent for testing out of concern for their health, but rather to ensure that production is not interrupted by workers raising health and safety concerns."

CWAO shared a document on Twitter appearing to show that employees are being asked to pay R500 for Covid-19 testing, if the result is negative.

In the document entitled “What you need to know about the Corona Virus (COVID-19) - Employee Training Guide”, reportedly made available at its distribution centres, Dis-Chem says that employees displaying symptoms are to be examined by an on-site nurse, who will decide whether to test them for Covid-19.

“If the result is negative, the staff member will be contacted to return to work. (They will need to pay R500 for this test, deducted over 3 months from their salary),” says the document.

If the result is positive "[t]he staff member will not be required to pay for this test).

Dis-Chem confirmed the authenticity of the document. The company “acknowledges that the wording may be misleading and has taken steps to rectify this,” it told Business Insider South Africa – because, it says, the situation is more complex than that.

According to Dis-Chem, all employees are screened on a daily basis. If they present with symptoms, and if an on-site nurse judges a swab test to be necessary, Dis-Chem will pay for the test, whether the result is positive or negative.

All employees they came into contact with will also be tested.

However, the company will charge employees if they want the test, but do not display any symptoms.

“Employees who do not display symptoms and were not in close contact with a confirmed positive employee, and still insist on a test are given the option to go to a state facility for free testing, or Dis-Chem will conduct the test, at a reduced rate," it said.

Dis-Chem argues it cannot proactively test every staff member. “Laboratories would not be able to cope with the numbers, there would not be enough available tests and globally, this is not standard practice.”

The company, which employs large amounts of casual staff, says its permanent employees are on medical aid or medical insurance.

“Dis-Chem will not use the Solidarity Fund for staff members who are employed and have benefits available to them," it said in response to questions.

The pharmaceutical retailer has previously also come under fire for its conduct during the coronavirus crisis. 

The Competition Commission has referred Dis-Chem to the Competition Tribunal for prosecution for excessive pricing of face masks. The company - which was allowed to trade throughout lockdown - has also refused to pay full rent to its landlords.

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