Stepping into the Breach: Unions Provide Key Aid in COVID-19

More than four out of five people (81 percent) in the global workforce of 3.3 billion are currently affected by full or partial workplace closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 1.25 billion workers are employed in the sectors identified as being at high risk of “drastic and devastating” increases in layoffs and reductions in wages and working hours, according to a new International Labor Organization (ILO) report. Many are in low-paid, low-skilled jobs, where a sudden loss of income is devastating.

At the same time, workers still on the job—nurses, retail workers, miners and transport employees—are facing employers who refuse to provide gloves, masks and other safety gear needed to protect against the virus. Unions across the globe are stepping into the breach, negotiating pay and benefits for furloughed and laidoff workers and demanding employers step up to protect workers who are risking their lives on the front lines of the crisis. Below is a sample of union action, reported in large part by Solidarity Center staff working with our union and worker association partners around the world.

Maldives, health workers don safety gear on way to hospital during CORVID-19, worker rights, Solidarity Center

MHPU members don safety gear before volunteering at the National Emergency Operation Center. Credit: MHPU

For more than a month, members of the Maldives Health Professionals Union (MHPU) have worked their formal shifts, then began volunteering at the National Emergency Operation Center, which addresses issues related to COVID-19.

The Federation of Trade Unions of Kyrgyzstan, civil society organizations and foundations throughout Kyrgyzstan are coordinating volunteer activities and created a database to assist medical institutions, law enforcement agencies and the Ministry of Emergencies to implement workplace disinfection and risk prevention plans; staff the country’s COVID-19 hotline; and deliver materials to doctors, the elderly and other high-priority or at-risk groups. At the Khaidarkan mercury plant, the union committee negotiated funds for fabric to make masks, and so far have sewn more than 2,000. The federation and many unions are transferring one day’s worth of salaries to a government fund for addressing the coronavirus, which includes providing essential protective gear for health workers.

The South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU) reached an agreement with employers to guarantee six weeks full pay for 80,000 workers as the country goes into lockdown, and establish a rapid response task team to manage day-to-day issues.

As courts and clinics close due to COVID-19, the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA), a Solidarity Center partner, is demanding that facilities stay open to address domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence as police received some 87,000 reports of domestic violence in the first week of mandated social isolation. The government also must “increase the number of mobile clinics, both for COVID-19 testing and for treating victims for gender-based violence in all regions of the country with a special focus on vulnerable areas such as densely populated townships and informal settlements,” the federation says in a statement. Mobile clinics should include staff or other health workers specially trained in handling and managing gender-based violence.

Ukraine, retail workers in COVID-19, Solidarity Center, worker rights

The union of market and retail vendors in Ukraine is ensuring workers are protected with face masks. CREDIT: KVPU

Through prolonged appeals and advocacy unions demanding higher pay and personal protective equipment for medical workers in Ukraine, the government approved a 300 percent wage increase for workers directly responding to the COVID-19 crisis. The Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU), a Solidarity Center partner, is providing free legal assistance via email for workers. In Kyiv, the city trade union council, together with the Kyiv medical workers’ union, organized free transportation for medical workers commuting from nearby cities. The council also urged the mayor to suspend water and heat meter maintenance payments for Kyiv residents. The regional union of market and retail vendors in Lviv, in western Ukraine, allocated funding to support vendors who must work during quarantine and has funded more than 1,000 face masks.

The pandemic is putting at risk the fragile mineworking industry and jobs many workers depend upon in Zambia, according to the Mineworkers Union of Zambia, which supports the government for not implementing a complete lockdown. The union also is urging mining companies to follow the example of those mines that have put in place safety requirements like handwashing stations and sanitizers in mining sites while removing the mandatory Breathalyzer system following concerns raised by the union that use of these devices could spread the virus.

In Brazil, the Sorocaba garment workers union successfully negotiated with employers 15 days paid vacation for around 1,000 workers, with no layoffs, and the General Workers’ Union (UGT) published an information brochure for workers on taking safety measures to protect against COVID-19.

The Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia (CATUS) successfully stood up against efforts by the government to dock by 65 percent the pay of healthcare workers in Niš who were exposed to coronavirus and required to quarantine. CATUS also is highlighting for workers the government’s guidelines for telework, including requirements to define work time and for employers to take measures such as sanitation, staggered shifts and physical distancing for workers still on the job. More than 2,500 workers at the Fiat Chrysler plant in Kragujevac, Serbia, will receive 65 percent of their salary while the plant closes, after CATUS and the UGS Nezavisnost union negotiated the pay with the employers and government, according to union leader Zoran Markovic.

The Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (CATUBiH) issued an informational brochure to members on securing their rights on the job during the pandemic. The confederation also has also opened a phone line that workers can call for consultations or advice on workplace rights.