Fighting for the living on COVID-19

Fighting for the living on COVID-19

By Ambet Yuson

28 April 2020 15:28

These are difficult times as countries are taking unprecedented measures to slow the transmission of COVID-19. Many countries are in lock down. In other countries, there are fewer restrictions. There is widespread awareness that there is a global public health crisis and basic information on what is needed to reduce risk. We have been told we must change our behaviour to limit interaction and contact, even with family and friends, which can be distressing and disruptive.  

Global economic activity has slowed, but in many countries our members are still working on construction sites and our BWI affiliates are working hard to ensure that they are safe. For example, some affiliates, such as IG BAU in Germany and UOCRA in Argentina, have developed resources for the  construction industry and workers based on national and international guidelines for workers on health and safety at the workplace including on personal and workplace hygiene practices that are necessary to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. These include frequent handwashing, physical distancing, where workers are expected to stay two metres apart from others, as well as ensuring that work areas and tools are regularly sanitised. 

Over the years, trade unions have fought for and won internationally recognised rights of workers to a safe working environment. Employers are expected to uphold these rights, which are established in law in most countries. Such laws and regulations require employers to maintain a safe working environment in which workers are not exposed to health and safety risks. The BWI, along with a number of affiliates including our affiliates in Malaysia and Mauritius, are calling on governments to recognise COVID-19 as an occupational disease. Such a status would protect rights related to preventative measures to avoid becoming infected and protections if the disease is contracted as well as defining responsibilities of government and employers. 

As the BWI, we have championed the ILO Convention 167 on Safety and Health in Construction in which there are rights to preventative  and protective measures including that all appropriate precautions are taken to ensure that all workplaces are safe and without risk of injury to the safety and health of workers. it also ensures that a worker has the right to remove him or herself from danger when there is good reason to believe that there is an imminent and serious danger to his safety or health. 

The Convention stipulates that the main contractor has primary responsibility for health and safety on a construction site, that workers have a right to participate in determining procedures and methods of work and control over equipment that may affect safe working conditions. Such a convention is proving useful to articulate not only rights and responsibilities but also working conditions that should be in place, even more so during the pandemic, including access to adequate sanitation. Convention 167 has been ratified by 32 countries so far in almost 20 years that it has been in force and perhaps now is the time to bolster our efforts as the BWI, working with affiliates to demand ratification of the convention in many more countries. 

With COVID-19, maintaining a safe working environment means that a worker who is not well should be sent home and, if they have symptoms, should be isolated for a period of 14 days without losing wages. If wages are not secured for quarantine and sick days then, regardless of government policies and recommendations, workers without means may be forced to work, which will expose them and others to the virus. Unions such as E tu in New Zealand have produced information for workers regarding leave as a result of COVID-19.  Trade unions have a vital role in ensuring that construction workers are protected, that they are trained on safety measures and updated with the latest information.

There is a lot of uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic and situations continue to change very quickly that impact on health and safety. This requires that employers, together with workers and their trade unions, must act swiftly to change health and safety practices to comply with measures advised by public health authorities and other government departments and keep up to date with evolving local and international standards that are being developed as we learn more about the disease. 

Trade unions need to be involved in implementing government or negotiated changes as well as working with employers and workers to ensure that modified rules for safety and health are respected.  This has been true for CFMEU that has shared guidelines for the  building industry and on site guidelines for workers as well as other information for members on COVID-19, including information on frequently asked questions.  

BWI affiliates are working hard to ensure that worksites are being assessed to identify and manage workplace risks to reduce exposure of workers to this new threat. This may include reducing the number of workers on site at the same time, providing for job rotation, staggering meal breaks and keeping amenities such as toilets and break rooms sanitised and requiring workers to wear personal protective equipment such as masks or respirators. Many affiliates such as  UK affiliate Unite have developed educational resources for union officers and OHS worker representatives on COVID-19

At BWI we are especially concerned about the health and safety of vulnerable workers whose situations have become even more precarious  during the pandemic. Many of these workers are in the Global South, where construction workers are mostly informal and work as day labourers. Our affiliates, for example in India, Ghana, Indonesia and Peru, are grappling with how to get health and safety information to and protect these workers during the pandemic. 

We are also concerned for the migrant workers throughout the world that are vulnerable not only at work but at their accommodation, which is usually overcrowded, making  it  difficult to contain the spread of the virus. Together with our affiliates, we are closely following the impact on migrant workers in construction in countries like Malaysia and Singapore. We are also concerned for migrant workers in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and have sent letters to Gulf governments, where we have urged good health and safety measure to be put in place to protect migrant workers. In particular, the BWI has focused attention at this time on migrant workers in Qatar on infrastructure projects for the 2022 FIFA World Cup where we have agreement for joint inspections. 

The nature of construction work is inherently dangerous and BWI affiliates already take health and safety very seriously. Construction unions are leaders on labour inspection for safe workplaces. Inspection of active worksites is even more important during the pandemic and unions, including those from Central Asia and Eastern Europe report that this is central to their response . In addition to government labour inspection, many trade unions are asking representatives to regularly visit sites to observe conformity with health and safety requirements as well as asking workers trained in health and safety to be especially vigilant during this period. 

Should health and safety requirements not be met, then trade unions should support workers that refuse to work in unsafe conditions and even to shut down sites until there is compliance. Our affiliates in Belgium CV BiE and CG FGTB have stipulated in an agreement with employers the right of workers to decline work if a worksite has one or more cases of COVID-19 or if a worker can demonstrate that she or he is part of a group at risk. United Steelworkers of Canada (USW) has produced specific resources on the right to refuse work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although many countries have shut down construction sites with limited exceptions, some have continued despite shutdowns in other economic sectors. There was no closure of sites in the Netherlands where FNV-Bouwen en Wonen has recently reached agreement with construction employers on how to manage COVID-19 risks.  In most countries, construction will resume in the weeks and months to come. Unions have given consideration on how this can happen safely, and there have been negotiations, in some cases, difficult ones, with employers and governments. This has been reported by our affiliates in Italy and France, where construction work on major infrastructure projects has resumed.  It is important that work begins in safe conditions and that the necessary precautions, including personal protective devices and testing are provided to minimise the risk of exposure and that public health systems can cope with new situations. 

It is also important that workers are psychologically ready to return to work during the pandemic. UK’s TUC has produced a study that considers the mental health and wellbeing of workers as they prepare to return to work outside the home. Cooperation among workers is needed to ensure that all are safe at work and that the risk is limited that the disease will spread to families and communities.  

If strict and well-monitored health and safety conditions are not maintained, there is a risk that infection at the workplace will be a major factor in a second wave of the pandemic, which will do further damage to health and the economy as has already happened in a few countries. The protections needed are multiple. They include safeguarding the health of all workers and the population, the wages and protections of workers, and the future of the industry.

In our campaign for International Workers Memorial Day this year, the BWI has reached out to our affiliates to unite as we remember our dead and fight for the living. For as long as we must endure this devastating pandemic, we remain committed to support our affiliates in their struggle to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the workplace and to protect workers’ health and safety as well as the livelihoods and the wellbeing of workers and their communities.