“We see desperate workers willing to accept very low wages in extremely dangerous conditions, with no serious health and safety protections, let alone social distancing measures or personal protective equipment,” said Jon Hartough, Solidarity Center Bangladesh program director. When Bangladesh reopened hundreds of garment factories in April, thousands of desperate workers flocked back to overcrowded industrial areas, including the capital of Dhaka, which currently has the bulk of the country’s reported coronavirus infections.
The garment industry tends to invest where the rule of law is weakest, where there are sizable degrees of poverty and a degree of impunity, said the Solidarity Center’s David Welsh on the podcast, “On the Level with Jeff Hutton,” With the advent of the pandemic, millions of workers are left without wages and economic and job security–and the blame lies with the brands, he said. (Starts at minute 19:30)
As the COVID-19 crisis deepens in Ukraine and scandals are alleged regarding state procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE), worker rights activists are leveraging trade unions’ collective power to advocate for better pay and conditions for working people and help provide emergency relief during quarantine. The country’s trade unions are persisting in delivering help and calling out injustices—no small task given that Ukraine last year was awarded the worst labor rights score in Central and Eastern Europe.
Worker-initiated advocacy measures include:
- Civil society activists and the five major trade unions of Ukraine that represent 7 million members continue to resist proposed changes to the country’s labor law, which, in violation of international labor law, would allow employers to fire workers for any reason and drastically reduce overtime pay.
- Ukraine’s construction workers’ union began a collective bargaining process to minimize the negative effects of the pandemic on the construction sector and initiated a criminal case against construction company Prosco for wage theft.
- Trade union activists are speaking out on behalf of an emerging small entrepreneurs’ movement that is protesting disproportionate government support for larger, mostly oligarchy-owned, businesses during the lock down, and demanding equal support for small and micro-businesses, including small-scale farms.
- Workers at Ukraine’s postal and delivery service Nova Poshta successfully lobbied their employer to provide all 30,000 Nova Poshta employees with PPE when needed and preserve the wages and benefits of those required to stop working during quarantine.
- The Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine, FPU, on April 29 provided a live-streamed question-and-answer forum for labor leaders from Kharkiv, Kryvyi Rih, Poltava, Lviv, Zaporizzhya, Ternopil, and Kamyanske to consult with FPU experts about worker’s legal rights under Ukraine’s labor law during the pandemic, and to share their members’ most commonly reported violations—including overwork, employer pressure to take unpaid leave and issues around telework.
- Leaders of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, KVPU, on April 30 held a live-streamed conference with representatives of the medical workers’ union, rail workers’ union, independent unions of Donetsk region, the LEONI Wiring Systems union and others to catalog and discuss challenges reported by workers at home and on the job due to the pandemic—including job losses at shuttered mines in the Donetsk region, lack of PPE for medical workers and the uneven impact of quarantine on women.
- Trade unions in the Dnipro region successfully lobbied employers, local government and volunteers for increased support of medical workers at the frontline of the COVID-19 fight.
- Tower crane operators in Lviv held a wildcat strike, refusing to work until they receive their February and March wages and employer-provided PPE.
- Following an appeal from workers at the Kremenchuk machine-building plant, the local government in Poltava province allocated an additional $14,600 for medical worker needs, including face masks.
Worker-initiated relief measures include:
- Labor Initiatives (LI), a Solidarity Center-supported Ukrainian non-profit organization, is providing legal assistance to workers by distributing COVID-related information through its phone hotline, website, Facebook page and other social media. LI’s hotline provided some 100 consultations during the country’s first week of quarantine; its website FAQ on labor rights during the quarantine was viewed more than 60,000 times in March.
- The Trade Union of Healthcare Workers of Ukraine (HWUU) launched a hotline to collect and respond to emergencies reported by frontline healthcare workers, which include inadequate PPE and excessive workloads due to layoffs.
- Trade union members at Nova Poshta launched a COVID-19 email help line, provided disinfectants and children’s educational materials to all its members, and distributed 1,000 face mask vouchers to members deemed most at risk from COVID-19.
- The trade union representing workers employed by the Naftogaz state energy enterprise collected $300,000 for local healthcare worker needs, which was distributed to workers at 21 hospitals and 26 urgent-care centers.
- Also to support medical workers, the trade union representing workers employed by Ukraine’s Rivne Department of Culture collected $2,000 while the Rivne province union solidarity fund donated $50,000.
- Members of the trade union representing workers at oil-transporting company Ukrtransnafta distributed 2,256 food baskets to elders in need at a cost of $31,500.
- Unions in Pavlograd purchased 20 medical ventilators for hospitals in Pavlograd, Pershotravensk and Ternivka, and purchased $112,000 of PPE.
- KVPU-affiliated trade union activists at Antonov aircraft company helped ensure the safety of workers who are transporting medical equipment and PPE globally, including to COVID-19 hotspots.
- The trade union representing nuclear sector workers in Ukraine donated its entire reserve fund of $38,500 toward the purchase of PPE and relief for medical workers.
- Nuclear sector workers in Mykolaiv province collected $7,300 for medical workers at Yuzhnoukrayinsk hospital.
- The local chapter of the industrial workers’ union in the city of Kryvyi Rih organized self-manufacture of face masks for its members and others, producing more than 1,000 masks through March.