Construction unions mobilise against COVID-19

Construction unions mobilise against COVID-19

Ambet Yuson, BWI General Secretary

02 April 2020 06:57

The BWI affiliated unions have been mobilising during this trying time to protect the health, security, incomes and conditions of workers, especially in the construction sector. In some countries, unions have worked closely with governments and employers to respond to COVID to take care of workers and safeguard the construction industry. In many other countries, this has been more challenging and unions are having to formulate positions with consideration for workers survival if they lose their income or the risk  workers may face at the workplace of being exposed to a disease, where there is still so much that is not known. 

The BWI has been in touch with affiliated unions across the globe to understand the situation faced by workers in our sectors. We are sharing this information with our affiliates, their members and others that are interested on a dedicated page of the BWI website that is providing updates on union responses to COVID-19

Union responses to COVID-19 in Europe

During this month of March, Europe has been the active centre of COVID-19 and as of 28 March 2020, there were more than 350,000 cases across the region, almost half of all global cases. For European trade unions, social dialogue and cooperation with governments is well established, ensuring trade unions play a role in dealing with the crisis. 

In Italy, the country hardest-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in the region, BWI’s Italian affiliate, CISL reports that the severity of the situation has meant that the country will continue its lock down. The union reports on constructive cooperation with government and productive social dialogue that has helped to unify the Italian people facing the dire crisis. 

A number of unions including BWI’s French affiliates, UNIA in Switzerland, UNITE in the United Kingdom and GBH in Austria, have been negotiating to shutdown construction sites in the interest of workers safety and health. UNIA negotiated compensation for workers through the unemployment fund. It pressed for the closure of construction sites well before the government acted. UNITE has been fighting for protection for all construction workers regardless of employment relationships, including the self-employed. GBH, Austria, is working to secure measures to cushion the impact on workers, including to compensate for loss of revenue. 

French unions report that there were ongoing issues on compliance with  safety measures on site to reduce the spread of COVID-19 on worksites. ACV-BIE and CG FGTB of Belgium also report serious concerns regarding health and safety at workplaces before sites were locked down. 

In Turkey, while trade unions have closed their offices, union officials and workplace representatives are monitoring the working conditions at workplaces to ensure preventive measures on COVID-19 are in place. 

Several BWI affiliates have been negotiating with employers and the government on measures to protect the industry from the inevitable economic fallout from the pandemic and about the need for economic stimulus. In Germany, BWI affiliate IGBAU is working with the DGB to convince government to prepare a comprehensive plan to avert a possible economic recession. In the Nordic countries, massive stimulus packages have been put in place for the construction sector in addition to workplace safety measures where work continues.

Several unions have ramped up communication with workers during the pandemic. In Austria and Israel, unions have set up a hotline on COVID-19.  In addition to negotiating with the Israeli government to protect workers during this crisis, Histradrut also launched the “Daily Report,” which will provide updates on the situation on COVID-19 in Israel, with specific focus on workers’ rights and employment. In addition to our coverage on the BWI website, information on trade union positions and action on the pandemic in Europe can also be found on the website of the EFBWW.

Union responses to COVID-19 in other regions

In a very short time, the number of known cases of COVID-19 in the United States has grown from 1,000 on 10 March to about over 130,000 cases on 28 March, a figure which is growing rapidly every day. New York State, particularly New York city, is now the epicentre of the pandemic. BWI affiliate, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) denounced proposals in Congress that did little to address the problems of workers amidst the COVID-19 crisis, instead focussing on bailing out companies. Other trade unions in the United States have also pressed for a better package for workers and while some important improvements were made, many concerns are yet to be addressed. 

BWI affiliates in Brazil mobilised against a decree by President Jair Bolsonaro that included a provision to suspend employment contracts and salaries of all workers for up to four months. They successfully pressured its government to back down, but the fight is far from over and trade unions need to be vigilant and responsive to right-wing responses of the government to COVID-19 that do not take care of workers. In the Philippines, the Nagkaisa labour coalition also oppose the right-wing government’s response; opposing extra powers being granted to the President. The coalition is pushing for substantial funds to deal with the crisis, mass testing and treatment and a range of subsidies for workers. 

Work on construction sites continues in some countries. In Australia, CFMEU is joining forces with Master Builders’ Association to keep the workers safe in the worksite and jointly calling on the government to support the industry and ensure job security for all the workers in the construction industry. In Guatemala, SINCS-G has raised concern that the lives of workers cannot be protected if construction projects remain operational, and union members cannot exercise their labour rights, including the right to strike to demand labour and hygiene measures under the government restrictions that ban protests. 

There are more positive experiences for some affiliates. In Panama, SUNTRAC negotiated an orderly shut-down of construction sites with partial and temporary protections for workers affected by COVID-19. CMWEU, together with the CTSP National Centre in Mauritius have held discussion with government, which promised that there would be no job losses and that workers would be compensated if companies were unable to pay. 

Affiliates are also working hard to protect vulnerable workers. In Argentina, UOLRA has negotiated to include migrant workers among the beneficiaries of the Emergency Family Income (IFE) being made available to workers to offset the loss of income due to temporary closures to try to contain the spread of the disease. These migrants are mostly from Bolivia and are working in small family-owned brick factories. 

In India, TKTMS  has taken on the plight of construction workers in the informal economy  calling for  compensation  of lost income for these workers during to the pandemic. As India prepared to enforce the world largest COVID-19 lockdown, Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) submitted a charter of demands to government for strong steps to ensure that informal sector workers’ families are able to survive during the lockdown. BWI affiliates. The government announced a financial assistance program to cover the urban and rural poor and there are additional programs to cover all workers, including in construction. Whether this will be adequate remains to be seen. 

While the Tokyo 2020 Olympics has been postponed, UA Zensen demanded employment subsidies and increased paid sick leave for workers. It also assisted site unions to ensure that workers’ wages are paid while on leave. BWI has been particularly concerned about the conditions for the thousands of workers who are confined in labour camps/facilities in Qatar, many of whom had been working on FIFA World Cup 2022 infrastructure projects. 

Elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, workers are losing wages during nationwide shutdowns and unions in Morocco, Jordan and Egypt sent letters to their governments and employer associations to urge that no workers be dismissed during this time and to seek support for those that are most vulnerable. Trade unions is Tunisia have set up a “COVID-19 fighting fund” to help workers affected by the crisis and launched a broad campaign calling on factories to revoke COVID-related termination notices.

In the rest of Africa, the numbers of infected persons have been low, but there are concerns that the extent of the pandemic and the ability of African countries to respond is severely compromised by inadequate healthcare systems. African affiliates are gearing up to respond and there are ongoing discussions with employers and governments.

The BWI response

Whilst we are constantly communicating with our affiliates on how they are responding at national level to the COVID-19 crisis, the BWI is also actively engaged at the global response to COVID-19, where we will continue to represent worker interests with international agencies that are key to governance chains of major projects and initiatives in our sectors, including the international financial institutions such as the World Bank, multinational companies and sporting bodies like FIFA and IOC.

The BWI’s immediate response to the global spread of the new coronavirus, was targeted on the many workers who do not have trade union representation in our sectors. These unprotected workers are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, especially migrant workers who are working, and often living, in crowded, unsanitary conditions. 

The BWI has also written individually to multinational companies that have international framework agreements with us and even some companies where we do not have agreements. We have called on multinational companies to act responsibly and have offered cooperation in formulating a response to COVID-19 that upholds worker rights. 

MNCs have responsibilities that go far beyond their direct employees and include the rights of workers in sub-contractors, labour-hire firms and in global value chains. We will follow up with those companies to support workers and their unions affected by the actions of those companies.

In addition to regular communication with ILO and WHO on the COVID-19 response, we have also been working together with other Global Union Federations to define universal demands based on worker rights as well as to give solidarity and support for specific sector or national  responses. 

On 12 March 2020, The Council of the Global Unions (CGU), representing 200 million workers released a joint statement on urgent economic stimulus and workplace measures needed to respond to COVID-19. The CGU called on governments to protect the health of all workers by providing free medical testing, treatment, training, equipment paid sick leave and social protection as well as protection their right to work by taking action to protect jobs and the economy. The CGU also called upon employers to involve trade unions and prioritise the rights and welfare of workers in their response to the threats posed by COVID-19, taking measures to protect health, wages and working conditions of workers. 


The COVID-19 pandemic poses a huge challenge for workers in our sectors and problems will persist long after the pandemic ends. However, we already have evidence that organised workers with trade unions can effectively engage and cooperate with governments and negotiate for the protection of their health, rights and working conditions. 

However, millions of construction workers remain unorganized and unrepresented, especially those temporary and contract workers, self-employed, migrant and daily workers who will be most affected by this pandemic. The BWI is committed to support these workers  as we take on the challenges that are coming our way as this global pandemic rages.