Worker struggle in the time of COVID-19

Worker struggle in the time of COVID-19

Ambet Yuson, BWI General Secretary

20 April 2020 10:27

The COVID-19 pandemic and our understanding of it changes daily as infection spreads, learning advances, practices and treatments evolve, and policy responses change. For trade unions, the sudden challenges posed by this deadly and invisible threat is unlike anything we have had to deal with before. For trade unions, occupational health and safety of workers is the number one priority. But also, of paramount concern is the economic security and social protection of workers as well as the future of jobs and industries. 

Governments, international organisations, employers, and society, including workers and their trade unions, were not prepared for the massive shock from the coronavirus. Nevertheless, BWI affiliates have sprung into action responding to the needs and will of their members, provided leadership, and have worked with employers and governments to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the number of cases grew in countries, national responses put in place measures to slow down the spread, including stopping entry of foreigners and closing borders, limiting the number of people at gatherings and shutting schools and public places. People have been asked to stay at home with limited movement and restricted geographically. When these measures have been put in place and the extent of the measures has been decided by each government, most often taking into consideration the limits in public health care systems as well as availability of testing, medical supplies and equipment and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. 

The spread of the disease and limits on the ability to respond to the threats posed by COVID-19 have rendered more visible inequalities within national borders and between countries. This includes the vast differences in the quality and reach of public health systems and the availability of personal protective equipment. Inequalities are also visible in the economic protection and stimulus measures that governments take in response to the pandemic.


(Photo: Campos24horas)

In most countries, there have also been temporary shutdowns of economic activities except those related to the provision of essential goods and services, which has had enormous consequences for workers represented by the BWI affiliates. Affiliates from all over the world report to the BWI, that they have been fighting for workers deprived of work due to the pandemic to receive full salaries and benefits. There are many success stories, but mostly of organised workers, many covered by collective bargaining agreements and social dialogue. It has been much harder for unions to secure protection for workers who are temporary or on contracts or informal.  

Trade unions have urged governments to provide resources for workers as part of stimulus packages. Where assistance has focused on protecting business, trade unions argued that the first priority should be the protection of workers’ wages. In many

cases, they have been able to successfully negotiate such protections. Some governments have made provisions for workers to claim other social benefits through structures, such as social security, compensation or unemployment funds. However, there are too often obstacles for workers to receive those funds when they need it most, including restrictions on movement and limited communication. 

It is more difficult to obtain support for those without employment relationships, often temporary, casual, self-employed contract, and informal workers. This is especially true in developing countries with weak or inexistent social security schemes. These workers often include internal migrants who have come to urban areas to work and are without the means to survive for very long without income. They may be obliged to return to their rural homes where subsistence may be possible.  In many developing countries, there are millions of working poor that are experiencing extreme hardship under lockdowns. Hardship is likely to continue for the duration of the economic downturn. 

The pandemic is a crisis of globalisation that has exposed the political and social consequences of economic integration. The BWI sectors; construction, building materials, wood, forestry, and allied sectors, have been globalised over the last fifty years; connected by global value chains, flexible production systems and economic interdependence. Our sectors are interconnected. Construction, in particular, is a key driver of growth and jobs in other BWI sectors as well as the rest of the economy. Much of the recovery since the global financial crisis in 2008 has been driven by infrastructure development in which multinational companies, particularly in construction and cement, have been dominant. 

In some countries, construction is considered too vital to the economy to be discontinued even when other workplaces have been shut down. In other countries where there have been temporary shutdowns of construction and related industries, work is likely to re-start despite COVID-19 risks. Some governments are planning to launch infrastructure projects  as part of economic stimulus programs to reduce the economic impact of the pandemic.

Some of our affiliates are calling for construction during the pandemic to be limited toessential work, while others have opposed the shut-down of construction sites or supported reopening them and pursuing new projects out of concern for job losses and company closures. These positions have been made with consideration of the ability and resources available to workers, employers and governments to manage the risks and mitigate impact of the disease at workplace level and more broadly through health care and other social systems. 

Regardless of approaches and timing, which vary, our industries will re-open. Discussions with unions and employers have taken place on re-opening in some countries and a few agreements have been reached. The highest possible occupational health and safety standards should be observed in this process if disease and deaths at the workplace are to be averted and to avoid the spread of the virus. 

The pandemic will also aggravate the economic disparities in and between countries. The working poor in developing countries are extremely vulnerable during the pandemic; being without savings, social safety nets and adequate healthcare, sanitation and housing. The BWI sectors in some countries are dominated by mostly unorganised informal workers who will not survive very long without work. In these countries, the BWI is committed to help these workers as well as our affiliated unions, many of which have limited reserves and have been weakened by precarious work in their sectors. They will be struggling to maintain union membership and services. 

(Photo: REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Austerity measures adopted after the global economic crisis in 2008 played a big part in the inability of health systems across the world to deal with COVID-19.  The pandemic is teaching us that for globalisation to continue, the protection of global health is essential and if a population in one country is exposed to unchecked risk of COVID-19, it threatens the entire system. Worsening economic conditions will also affect public health and other services. Massive international solidarity, not yet forthcoming, is needed for vulnerable countries and persons. 

Many developing countries have sought financial assistance from the IMF and the World Bank, Some of it is needed for immediate public health reasons, but most will be for economic stimulus programs, many of which will benefit construction, building materials and other industries and create jobs. Relief in the short and medium term will increase debt, especially of already heavily indebted countries and, in the long term, compromise national sovereignty and development.

Faced with this global health crisis, the defects and failings of neoliberalism that dominates our globalised system means formal and those performing precarious work in the developed and developing world will have to pick up the pieces from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers are not able to afford to wait for a cure or a vaccine before getting back to work. While working during the pandemic is not without risk to the health of workers, their families and communities, work is essential to their survival and to meet the basic needs of their families. 

There is a long and hard road ahead for our affiliates and the workers they represent. It is even more urgent for workers to organise to defend their interests in these dark times. Without workers struggle, the alternative may be grim or even deadly, if not from the virus, from economic circumstances.