The whole world is locked down in response to the outbreak of the deadly Coronavirus (COVID -19) pandemic. Stocked by fear of contagion, millions of people around the world are hopelessly hiding in their private homes under the guise of lockdown measures imposed upon them by their respective governments in a bid to contain the pandemic. Mainstream activities such as football, entertainment, flights, work, business, public transport and churches were suspended for an initial period of twenty-one to thirty days with a possibility of further extensions depending with the situation on the ground. During a time when people are restricted to go out, fearful of others as possible COVID-19 carriers, how do we ensure we continue acting in ways to avoid an impending humanitarian crisis guaranteed by hunger and lack of production? Use of technology, such as the automation of business processes, procedures and operations is one such method being put forward to deal with the impending effects of Coronavirus. In this article, emphasis shall be placed on industries through the National Employment Councils that serve them in general. Automation of the work processes is at the heart of any winning business strategy during and after COVID-19 pandemic.
Cephas Mavhondo, of Mhishi Nkomo Legal Practice, published a brilliantly unscathed article on 31 March 2020 entitled: Employment Law and the Coronavirus in Zimbabwe: Question & Answers. In this article, recommendations were that, where possible, the employers can agree with employees to work from home in what he termed remote working. Mavhondo (2020) suggested that such a move will mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by removing face to face interactions through the increased use of e-communication such as e-conferencing.
The availability of Human resources Information Systems (HRIS) like Integrated Electronic Case Management Systems is a good takeaway towards this cause. In the wake of COVIND-19, government department like Judiciary Service Commission under the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Labour administration under Ministry of Labour and Social welfare are at an advanced stage of implementing its version of Electronic Case Management System. In the National Employment Councils sector, the following NECs have already implemented their versions of National Employment Councils Management Automation System (NECMAS): Mining, Harare Municipality and Agriculture. In this article, the authors demonstrate how industries, through the National Employment Councils can overcome the current workplace challenges posed by Coronavirus and allow businesses to continue working in a peaceful and harmonious environment amid the crisis and beyond.
What is Automation?
Simply put, automation is the technology by which processes, procedures, and operations are done or performed with minimal human assistance (Hearuty (2019). Working from home indirectly entails establishing a virtual office on the cloud-connected through the internet. The Integrated Electronic Case Management System also referred to as the National Employment Councils Management Automation System (NECMAS), is a sector-wide tool which is web-based enabling the NECs sector to attain new levels of perfection. It covers from the filing of a case right up to closure (confirmation of a ruling at the Labour Court). The system enables integration of the NECs in Zimbabwe and their various social partners i.e. trade unions, human resource personnel, legal practitioners, employers and employees by providing an interface for e-filing and follow up of cases. All Designated Agents will be connected to the system and will no longer write proceedings in longhand but they will simply do it on the automated system.
The NEC Operations Management System is being put forward in this article as a comprehensive solution for managing labour cases as well as declarations and payments of levies by subscribing members. The system has several modules, from case registration to the issuance of a ruling and reference to the Labour Court for confirmation. Once the system is in place, user login accounts and credentials will be created enabling the user to access a dashboard with a browser to access the rest of the system. The following discussion outlines different modules in the system.
In this module, users can create a new member by capturing all the details regarding the new entry. The prospective members for registration are mainly from physical walk inns, e-mails linked to the website enquiries and telephone consultations. The Designated Agent or any authority charged with the function of registering new members will advise the prospective members that they should first peruse the NEC documents such as the Constitution, the Collective Bargaining Agreements and Employment Code of Conduct for them to have a clear appreciation of the Industry before making an informed decision to join or not. These documents are shared as soft copies via the NEC’s website or e-mail. Depending on the practices regarding the admission of new members by different sectors, the registered member will automatically form part of the electronic database.
More so, those who can physically visit the NEC (under normal circumstances) are presented with a ‘package’ designed for new entrants, containing all the relevant documents for review. Those who would have been satisfied with the terms and conditions of the respective industry would then be advised to make an application addressed to the Secretary of Council for onward submission to the General Council for consideration (in the case of the Energy Industry).
This module is a clear replica of the famous Labour Relation 1 (LR1) Form that is in terms of the Labour Act [Chapter 28:01] as amended. Every new case that is reported through electronic means or physical walk inns is recorded in this module. All the different types of labour disputes and unfair labour practices are part of the system for the Designated Agent to simply click and pick the suitable one. The moment a case is registered it will be assigned a unique case number which will be used to track the case. This is regardless of the geographical location of the respective Designated Agent. The complaint form can be printed for record purposes if need be.
Notices to attend hearing proceedings
This module replaces the typical form LR6 in terms of the Labour Act [Chapter 28:01] as amended. At this stage, the Designated Agent selects the case from a list of registered cases only from the system and have not been actioned hence, the date of hearing is the only detail to be captured. All the other information related to that particular case is retrieved from the system since it will have been captured during case filing. The notification form can be printed if the Designated Agent wants to save hard copies for record purposes.
Certificate of Service/Acknowledgement of Receipt
Parties to the case or their representatives need to acknowledge the receipt of the notification to attend a hearing or any other documentation such as the ruling issued by the Designated Agent. All the acknowledgements will be recorded in this module. It is also important to note that various stakeholders or social partners are given different access levels to be able to fulfil their obligations. Acknowledgement of receipts assists authorities to decide on whether to proceed to hear the matter in absentia or to postpone the matter to another date, depending on the reasons submitted for non-attendance despite having received the notice.
In circumstances where both parties agree to extend the hearing proceedings after the expiry of the prescribed 30 day period in terms of section 101(6) of the Labour Act[Chapter 28:01], an extension is issued out in this module. At this stage, the Designated Agent selects the case from a list of cases that have a notification to attend hearing sent out. All the other information is retrieved from the system since it will have been captured during the previous notices. This module replaces the typical form LR3 in terms of the Labour Act [Chapter 28:01] as amended
Certificate of Settlement/No Settlement
After hearing the matter, the Designated Agent has to give either a certificate of settlement or no settlement depending on whether the parties have a meeting of the minds or have recorded a disagreement. These forms can be printed out from the system if the Designated Agent wants to save hard copies. It is important to note that, in cases of a certificate of settlement, where parties are supposed to append their signatures to denote agreement, an e-signature machine may be availed to sign from the system. However, where the NEC does not have such technology, hard copies may be printed out for signing.
Statutory Inspections/In- loco inspections
This module is a mobile application based which means it can be accessed without internet but one has to synchronize the data to the database once connected to the internet. This enables the Designated Agents to capture data even when they are in areas with difficulties internet access. This function is however more suitable under normal circumstances since it involves human interaction. As such, during this Coronavirus outbreak, it is suggested that normal inspections be suspended except in cases where there is a reported case of an accident at the workplace or where the working environment poses a threat to human life.
The following reports may be automatically generated from the system~
- Cases per period (Weekly, Monthly, Quarterly etc.)
- Cases per Designated Agent
- Cases per station
- Consolidated report for all stations at Head Quarters level
- Report by case status, for example, registered cases, settlements, non-settlements, cases in abeyance and so on.
- Reports by a member company
- Cases done during any period by their status, for example, registered, notification sent extensions etc.
The system is also equipped with an accounts module. This allows member companies to make monthly declarations of the number of employees employed by them and eventually make payments. In line with global smart recommendations to fight the spread of Coronavirus through a reduction in face to face interactions and exchange of banknotes, the system is linked to financial institutions such as banks and mobile money service providers in order to allow payment of levies through online platforms such as ECOCASH, ZIPIT, RTGS, straight to bank and many other payment methods.
Business Case for the NECs Automation
- Disputes are speedily/expeditiously resolved in line with section 2A of the Labour Act
[Chapter 28:01], since there is no more duplication of tasks by the Designated Agents
- Integration of different silos at the workplace for seamless communication and reporting(DAs, Management, Executive, Social Partners)
- Improvement in productivity as the system improves efficiency across the industry
- Designated Agents can be monitored remotely by their superiors through the system on the work they are doing
- Scalability in the sense that the system can accommodate as many licensed users as desired. The system can be packaged with the declarations module such that the National Employment Council can view subscriptions with a few clicks of buttons.
- Usability and maintainability because it provides a simple interface to users. It is also easy to maintain as it can be done remotely.
- It allows for easy collection of levies through online convenient payment platforms
- It allows for easy reporting for the Designated Agents, General Secretaries and the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare. The system is customized in such a way that users just detail the reports needed and would be produced.
- The system also allows for customization to suit each individual industry’s needs
- The system provides high levels of transparency and an audit trail. The activities done in the system are monitored and evaluations are carried out transparently.
- Reduces costs of doing business (no fuel needed to serve notification forms, filing submissions, visiting physical offices to make some enquiries etc.)
Challenges and possible solutions
Introduction of any changes from the normal way of doing business is met by resistance. Such resistance is good for business to thrive as it avails room for discussion on areas that may be unclear to all concerned parties.
Overcoming resistance to change
In cases where there is no will to implement or institute a paradigm shift in terms of adopting Information and Technology as a tool to fight the spread of COVID-19, peer trainer can make it easier to stave off resistance – Designated Agent to Designated Agent, General Secretary to General Secretary, lawyer to lawyer, councillor to councillor and TV and radio presentations as well. The initial focus must be had on those NECs that are ready for change. Of importance in dispelling this resistance is to underline that the system is vital under the current situation and also into the future for effective work execution.
Security of the system
Security-wise, users are only restricted to the entry-level of security like login credentials- user names and passwords the rest is handled by the hosting company. There are back up measures in place and such backups are automatically done twice a day at 16:30hour and 12:00 pm. The system has an autosave function to address blackouts.
The initial funds outlay may be substantial but manageable and also worthy serving a human life, jobs and businesses during and after this COVID-19 period. Additional costs to be incurred on the outstanding modules which are e-signature and stamping, fingerprint, online visa payments and future integrations including the necessary equipment are a bit costly but a necessary investment.
System Realignment with the court rules
The NECs automation needs to be integrated with other departments necessary for duty execution. This should not be a big issue since the Judicial Service Commission has already paved the way for implementing the Integrated Electronic Case Management System. The Ministry of Labour & Social Welfare which is the parent Ministry is also at an advanced stage of implementing a similar project to be used by the Labour Officers. In Rwanda for instance, as an interim measure to a change of the Rules, the Chief Justice exercised his powers in terms of the equivalent of our Rule 4 of the Supreme Court Rules and Rule 4C of the High Court Rules to introduce the Integrated Electronic Case Management System.
In conclusion, it is inescapable to surmise that the devastating effects of C0VID-19 that has condemned the whole world to a state of helplessness, can be successfully mitigated if and when industries through their National Employment Councils take a proactive bold step to automate their operations. Automation of operations, in turn, allows for employees to be flexible in their work arrangements and be able to work from home. The technology was also presented as a vital tool for future work engagements as it enhances high-efficiency levels, improved productivity, expeditious resolution of workplace disputes, and reduction of face to face interactions and promotion of social distancing among other benefits. The costs and challenges that are associated with the establishment of an Integrated Electronic Case Management System are far less than the lives, jobs, businesses and the impending humanitarian crisis likely to be faced by continued failure to work by the disadvantaged groups of the working class.
(Itai Bonda is the Chairperson of the Association for the Designated Agents of Zimbabwe (AFDAZ), a member of the Africa Association for Young Arbitrators (AYA) and a Designated Agent for the National Employment Council for the Zimbabwe Energy Industry. Itai writes in his personal capacity as a seasoned employment law and industrial relations practitioner. He can be contacted on +263-712 457 870 /0777 952 135 or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org for any further clarifications or assistance)
Dr. Tsvangirai (D.Com Industrial Psychology) is a Human Resources Generalist, a postgraduate Human Resources Management lecturer and an author. He is also a member of the Africa Association for Young Arbitrators (AYA). He write in his personal capacity as an avid Employee Relations practitioner. He is reachable on 0712 598 342 or email@example.com