Global labour unions organise for a post-pandemic world

Every night, since the COVID-19 pandemic brought several European countries to a standstill, people confined to their homes have taken to their windows and balconies to cheer and applaud the health workers battling against the virus.

Doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals are on the frontlines of the fight against a pandemic that has already claimed more than 64,000 lives (at the time of publication) worldwide. And they pay a heavy price. In Italy, which so far has the biggest death toll from coronavirus, close to 90 health workers have died since the beginning of the outbreak (at the time of publication), while across the world, tens of thousands more have been infected and forced into self-isolation, putting many healthcare systems under incredible strain.

But there are many other categories of workers whose contribution to the global fight against the virus is essential. Workers who simply cannot perform their job with a laptop from their living room and now carry out their daily work with the added anxiety of deadly contamination.

Truck drivers worldwide have posted pictures of themselves on social media with the caption: “I can’t stay home, I’m a truck driver.” In Italy, a supermarket clerk died of the virus; in South Africa, journalists have tested positive for COVID-19; gig economy workers in the US, with no safety net to fall back on, continue to drive passengers and deliver food and packages, even though just one interaction with a coronavirus carrier could be fatal. And in Belgium, street cleaners like Ahmet Sener perform their work with no protective equipment other than a winter scarf.

“If I don’t do my work, the streets will be full of garbage and this could accelerate the spread of the virus,” Sener says with a hint of desperation in his voice.

As Equal Times recently wrote in an op-ed: “When the world was on fire, it was our healthcare workers, emergency responders, cleaners, transport workers, carers, supermarket workers, waste collectors, gig economy delivery drivers, teachers and police officers – often earning salaries that barely allowed them to feed their families – that kept our societies functioning. This we must never forget.”

But with a global recession looming on the heels of this pandemic, workers around the world are at the very beginning of a crisis of unknown proportions and ramifications. While the International Labour Organization (ILO) calculates that the outbreak could cost 25 million jobs worldwide and cause a significant rise in working poverty, its director-general Guy Ryder says these numbers “may underestimate the magnitude of the impact.”

No dead heroes

Trade unions have every reason to be worried. In places like Poland, social dialogue is being undermined, while Hungary has gone a step further, with the parliament conferring sweeping, authoritarian powers to the executive branch under the guise of fighting COVID-19. The prospect of a full-blown economic crisis could lead governments and employers to undertake measures that could erode collective bargaining rights, union membership, social protection measures and further roll-back labour rights.

Workers’ representatives are already preparing for this outcome at local, national, sectoral and international levels, with the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC), the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) all mapping the various responses and consequences of the pandemic. It emerges that countries with high rates of unionisation, good social safety nets and strong collective bargaining rights are the ones that have coped the best with the immediate effects of the pandemic on workers.

The most immediate priority is health and safety.

Public Services International (PSI), the global union federation of public sector workers, including health and care professionals, says “the public’s expressions of solidarity are uplifting. But it’s not enough.”

“We do not want health workers to become dead heroes. And we need as many health workers as possible to be alive and healthy to keep up the good work they are doing,” adds PSI’s general secretary Rosa Pavanelli in a statement.

PSI is voicing its concern over the global shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers, and is calling on governments to take all necessary steps to ensure the provision of critically-needed gear and medical supplies, even if it requires the requisition of manufacturing production facilities.

That call has been partially heard. Some factories are already retooling their assembly lines towards healthcare items: Italian luxury goods brand Armani is now producing single-use medical gowns, while Ford and General Electric are working together in the US to produce much-needed ventilators. Supply chains are also quickly adapting to this new paradigm, and labour unions are backing this transition.

“We have examples in the United States, in Italy, in Brazil, of companies that are converting their production temporarily to produce ventilators, sanitisers, hygiene products or protective equipment,” says Valter Sanches, general secretary of IndustriALL, the global union for 50 million industrial workers. “It’s something we encourage. We are ready to support the global effort to help those affected by the virus.”

Ever since workers rallied around the cry “workers of the world, unite!”, international cooperation has been at the core of the labour movement. But today, there is a real sense that the coronavirus crisis could reinvigorate a movement that has been significantly weakened by four decades of neoliberalism.

“We have an opportunity now as long as we keep on the offensive in terms of the narrative: we need more care from the state, more care for precarious workers, and universal healthcare coverage,” argues Sanches.

A new model for the global economy?

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC, also thinks that “the health and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on employment relationships which are deficient in paid sick leave, guaranteed hours of work or even a basic contract.

“The post-pandemic world could give us a new model for the global economy, a new commitment to sharing the world’s wealth and a renewed investment in compliance and the rule of law,” she writes.

But for now, the most vulnerable workers are in the eye of the storm. In the global south, where the low-wage production of global manufacturing is largely based, scant social protection and weak labour standards mean that these workers are already bearing the brunt of the economic slowdown. The garment industry is particularly badly affected by the crisis, as factories are closing at an “alarming rate”, potentially leaving millions of workers without wages, redundancy pay or healthcare benefits.

According to IndustriaLL: “Garment workers are expected to pay the price for the clothes they have already made.

“Not only are major brands and retailers cancelling future orders, are refusing to take responsibility for garments that have already been produced, using emergency provisions in contracts to stop shipments and avoid paying for the goods they ordered. This leaves factories holding the goods, unable to sell them to the customer that ordered them, and in many cases unable to pay the wages of the workers who made them.”

The labour movement is closely monitoring the corporate and public reaction to the outbreak. Last month the first of the ITUC’s global COVID-19 surveys analysed the emergency support introduced by G20 governments and found that “the best of these responses have provided immediate support for workers and the real economy with paid sick leave, wage or income support and other measures.”

“The G20 countries are taking the situation very seriously,” says Tim Noonan, campaigns director at the ITUC, referring to the group’s pledge to inject US$5 trillion into the global economy to tackle the consequences of the outbreak. “Now we need to mobilise to make sure [the money] reaches the real economy. The way to achieve that is through social dialogue between unions and companies so that we make sure that the funds that are made available go to working people, working families and don’t end up in tax havens.”

Stopping the roll-back of rights

Global unions are particularly focused on restraining “predatory companies like Amazon but also authoritarian political figures like President Bolsonaro [in Brazil] who are seeking to capitalise on the crisis to entrench their power,” says Noonan.

In Italy, Tania Scacchetti, confederal secretary of the CGIL trade union confederation, accused Amazon of putting “productivity and profit before safeguarding the personal safety of its employees.” She was referring to the e-commerce giant’s failure to adequately abide to government safety rules at a time when the demand for home deliveries is booming due to confinements. And in New York, Amazon warehouse workers went on strike last Monday after a colleague contracted COVID-19.

Amazon has denied any wrongdoing and insists it “prioritizes health and safety while fulfilling customer services.”

In Brazil, coronavirus-denialist Jair Bolsonaro has taken advantage of the crisis to push through labour reforms that directly weakens trade unions by significantly reducing their collective bargaining rights.

In France, the government of Emmanuel Macron hastily passed a labour reform that increases the hours employees are allowed to work. The reform is due to apply until the end of the year only, but some fear that it will serve as a stepping-stone for Macron to promote his long-held plan of reducing workers’ rights in a bid to make his country more attractive to investors.

In the United States, the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, which controversially claim their drivers are independent contractors, have blocked attempts by gig economy workers to receive unemployment benefits.

In the service sector in general, represented internationally by UNI Global Union, the demand is for urgent and adequate protection, especially for airport staff, security personnel, cleaners and postal workers.

“Post and logistics workers are frontline workers too and serve an essential, if not emergency, service,” argues Cornelia Berger, head of UNI Post and Logistics. In Spain alone, one postal worker has reportedly died from the coronavirus, while 200 others have tested positive.

In several countries, the concept of ‘essential services’, has been a hot topic for debate. To be considered as such mean a business can continue trading, which has raised the alarm with a number of unions who feel they were not properly consulted.

Construction is one sector where the line between what can be define as an ‘essential service’ or not is easily blurred. In Ireland for example, unions have called for all non-essential construction sites to close while ‘essential services’ construction sites are quickly identified in order to provide adequate protections to its workers.

Ambet Yuson, general secretary of the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI), stresses that “although social dialogue and proper and effective engagement by governments with trade unions are always important, such practices are even more necessary in crisis situations.”

“We call on governments and employers to work closely with BWI member organisations in order to implement measures, programmes and services that extend, not limit, rights and protect and ensure the health, safety and working conditions of all workers.”

The coronavirus poses a number of challenges that are still hard to fathom, but for the labour movement, the objective seems clearer than ever. In the short-term, it’s to preserve workers’ lives, especially those on the frontlines of the battle against the pandemic.

In the long-term, unions say they will need to organise collectively in the midst of a recession in order to ensure that labour rights are not further rolled-back under the pretext of reanimating an economic model that has often failed workers.