On 12 May, BWI held its second “How are you?” online conversation on COVID-19 and the world of work. The webinar brought together trade union leaders, officials, and activists from 11 Western European countries. It was opened by BWI Deputy Presidents Gail Cartmail and Dietmar Schäfers. Participants were recognised by BWI Regional Vice President Johan Lindholm, while BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson summarised the main points of the discussion.
The participants acknowledged that everybody in Western Europe is deeply affected by the pandemic, impacting negatively both their private and working lives. They said that the measures enforced by governments ranging from physical distancing to shutting down non-essential industries are especially challenging for trade unions, many of which were accustomed to activities that physically bring people together. Trade unions in Western Europe said that they were able to reshape their activities to adapt to the “new normal” and continue supporting their members.
In countries, like Italy and Spain, where the construction, wood and forestry industries were completely shut down, trade unions negotiated special agreements with employers and governments, and urged authorities to adopt additional measures to secure workers’ jobs and incomes. In Germany and Sweden, where the same industries continued to operate, the unions’ major concern was how to ensure that workers had adequate protection measures at the workplaces, safe accommodations and transportation.
The participants also discussed some of the most vulnerable groups, including self-employed and migrant workers. They stressed the need to continue addressing their issues and concerns and ensure that they are included in government protection schemes (United Kingdom, Germany and Italy).
Despite the unparalleled difficulties unions face, the health crisis also strengthened and broadened their ranks. In Sweden, Byggnads has 8,000 new members. Unite the Union (UK) also reported a surge in their membership.
Yuson joined the participants in affirming that online conversations play an important role in keeping unions connected to discuss strategies, share information and analyses and plan joint actions. “We can’t go back to old ways of doing things. To remain relevant and become stronger, we need to adapt to new realities.”