Why punish small businesses and allow big ones freer rein?

capechamber.co.za-Why punish small businesses and allow big ones freer rein

The private sector’s experience of Level 5 Covid-19 lockdown regulations has had a dramatic and negative impact, abruptly confining owners, managers, administrators and workers to their homes. After five weeks of lockdown, it is obvious that the small business sector has taken the biggest hit.

Level 4 Lockdown has eased the situation to some extent, but the small business sector stares into a deeper abys of despair than ever. Many enterprise owners that have kept their workers paid – sometimes foregoing their own pay – can no longer do so, having fallen between the regulatory cracks by not being deemed formal enough to qualify for aid, or by simply being unable to wait any longer for their applications for help to be processed.

Other enterprises are left in limbo, unable to get clarity on whether they and their workers can or cannot get back to work. In their case, the fault often lies with the sloppy, hurried drafting of the new permissions. This creates a fog of confusion covering the official decision-making process.

The Western Cape has twice been the victim of such a fog, either by design or by accident. Sensible lobbying reversed the first ban on wine exports – much to the relief of the Treasury, one suspects. The second time it was a victim, though sharing the pain with other provinces, it was the Level 4 ban on the resumption of private construction projects, while allowing “public works projects”.

It simply does not make sense that “public” civil engineering and construction are permitted during Level 4 but not private sector developments or building projects. The occupational health and safety regulations apply to both, after all.

Business requires certainty in order to function optimally, so the uncertainty regarding which type of project qualifies as “public work” is a major concern. No one is happy with the official definition, and in the absence of any further official clarification, our conclusion is that this appears to be clear discrimination against private construction projects and especially small ones at that.

If it is not borne out of an ideological dislike of the small business owner and, if it is not (heaven forbid) evidence of successful anti-competition lobbying, it makes even less sense. Public and private construction projects – large or small — are subject to the same health and safety regulations and it should be left to responsible business owners in this sector to ensure that the necessary health and safety protocols are implemented and maintained. What is more, there is already an army of trained health and safety inspectors available to ensure compliance with approved Covid-19 protocols. 

Time for the Construction Covid-19 Rapid Response Task Team (CC19RRTT) – yes, it is referred to by its unpronounceable acronym – to make a rapid decision to reverse this clear case of discrimination.

Geoff Jacobs
President of the Cape Chamber of Commerce & Industry