Workers who risked their health to provide essential services during the pandemic joined with actors, global union leaders and policymakers in a first-of-its-kind worldwide gathering to share their experiences and demand a response that urgently and effectively protects all people, and especially the most marginalized.
Yalitza Aparicio spoke in support of government action to ensure essential workers have decent wages and safe work.
“COVID-19 has taught us about the importance of workers in all sectors and recognize that they deserve dignified work and they are important in the world economy,” said actor Yalitza Aparicio. “Governments know about this. But, what are they doing about it?” Aparicio was among dozens of speakers during the September 8–10 Essential For Recovery virtual summit who pointed to the need for action to ensure decent wages, rights and social protections like paid sick leave so workers deemed “essential” during the pandemic will not be left behind after the crisis passes.
As the Summit made clear, essential workers often work in the informal economy. “They have no rights, no minimum wages, no rule of law, no social protection,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). “We have to get a minimum living wage to all essential workers. We have to afford them collective bargaining rights. And we have to put in place universal social protection in safe workplaces.”
Organized by the Open Society Foundations and hosted by actor Sophia Bush, Essential For Recovery focused on four themes: increased income and improved working conditions; healthy and safe workplaces and access to health care; social protection benefits and support for vulnerable workers; and ending gender-based violence and harassment at work.
The Solidarity Center co-sponsored the event, along with HomeNet International, ITUC, StreetNet International Alliance of Street Vendors, UNI Global union and WIEGO.
Catch the full three one-hour sessions:
Unions, Collective Action Key to Building Back Better
Mithqal Zinati (right), a coordinator for Jordan’s agricultural sector, says workers need the right to form unions to ensure safe workplaces.
In Jordan, where workers have limited rights to form unions, Mithqal Zinati, a coordinator for the country’s agricultural sector, says the government’s action “keeps thousands and tens of thousands of workers from being part of providing solutions to the problems facing the agriculture sector. This eliminates the role of workers to defend their rights and protect their interests and to see beneficial gains.
“For everyone, having a union is very beneficial. For farmers and for workers at the same time.”
As the pandemic highlighted, workers with unions often more readily had access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and decent wages. Summit participants discussed the power of grassroots organizing to improve workers’ lives, and described how, over the last year, essential workers in the formal and informal economies went on strike to win access to PPE and vaccines. They took to the streets and to social media to demand more democratic societies and governments.
Maria do Carmo, a Brazilian street vendor, organized street vendors into a nationwide organization, the National Union of Hawkers, Street and Market Vendor Workers of Brazil (UNICAB), and through their collective power, raised awareness of their issues with politicians. “Today we have respect from City Hall,” she said.
“Over the past two days, we’ve seen proof of the effectiveness of collective action, and of the importance of eliminating gender inequities. But at the heart of it all is power,” said Bush, at the start of the third and final session.
Women Targets of Gender-Based Violence, Burdened with Carework
The pandemic also forced many to work from home where women disproportionately engaged in care work. Globally, women lost $800 billion in income due to COVID-19.
Mercedes D’Alessandro, the first national director of Economy, Equality and Gender in Argentina, described a study in which she found that during the pandemic, three-quarters of women did unpaid care work, amounting to 22 percent of GDP—up from 16 percent of GDP before COVID-19.
“The truth is that the increase in time that women dedicate to care activities means also a smaller opportunity to go out and look for a job, continue with their jobs, develop their careers or study, graduate from university,” she said.
Shirley Pryce, president of the Jamaica Household Workers Union, urges governments to ratify a treaty ending gender-based violence at work.
Women also experienced high levels of violence during lockdowns, further highlighting the need for governments to ratify an International Labor Organization (ILO) treaty (Convention 190) to end gender-based violence at work.
“Violence and harassment can happen anywhere, and it can happen to anyone,” said Shirley Pryce, president of the Jamaica Household Workers Union. “But this must not be tolerated. It must stop. Let us push together for governments to ratify this very important convention.”
C190 covers wherever work is performed, such as where workers take a rest break or meal or use sanitary, washing or changing facilities, and includes commuting to and from work.
“We are seeing a new normal. Home has become a workplace,” said Rose Omamo, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers, a Solidarity Center partner. Employers must ensure workers have what they need to work from home, including safe workplaces, she said.
Building to a Better, More Equitable Tomorrow
Artists like Sinkane performed during the Essential Worker Summit.
Omamo was in conversation with Rosa Pavanelli, general secretary of Public Services International. The summit provided opportunities for shared discussion, “lightening rounds” featuring workers telling their stories and urging action, and videos showcasing worker issues such as the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT)’s documentary on women agricultural workers seeking safer transportation.
Essential for Recovery also featured multimedia presentations by performance artists such as Khansa, a singer, songwriter and dancer from Lebanon; U.S. actor Martin Sheen; Sonam Kalra of the Sufi Gospel Project; and Ahmed Abdullahi Gallab Sinkane, a Sudanese-American musician.
“I stand with all essential workers around the globe. The domestic and agricultural workers, waste pickers, street vendors, caregivers and home-based workers who make our world run,” said Sinkane, before performing U’Huh.
“During the pandemic, we saw how essential they really are. They deserve a living wage, proper employment conditions and a safe and healthy workplace,” he said. “Let’s build forward to a better, more equitable tomorrow.”
Key participants in Essential For Recovery also included Christy Hoffman, UNI Global Union general secretary; Maina Kiai, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Guy Ryder, ILO director general and Ai-jen Poo, National Domestic Workers Alliance executive director.
Among the world’s most vulnerable workers are those marginalized within their economies and societies, namely the women and labor migrants who predominate in the informal economy, where they perform valuable work in low-wage jobs as janitors, domestic workers, agricultural workers, home healthcare workers, market vendors, day laborers and others. Today, many of these workers are on the coronavirus front lines, risking their health without benefit of paid sick leave, COVID-19 relief programs or personal savings. Others are working where they can, if they can, to survive.
Although more than 2 billion workers globally make their living in the informal economy and can create up to half of a country’s GDP, they have limited power to advocate for living wages and safe and secure work, and never more so than during the current pandemic when informal-sector workers are disproportionately falling through the cracks. Due to the failure of governments to build systems of universal social protection, the world is facing the pandemic with 70 percent of all people lacking a safety net, says International Confederation of Trade Unions (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow. Also, despite their vast numbers—61 percent of the world’s workers work in the informal economy and, in developing countries, that number can rise to 90 percent of a country’s workforce—informal-sector workers are consistently overlooked by legislators and policy makers for economic assistance and legal protections during the current crisis.
A new brief from the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) warns that workers earning their livelihoods in the informal economy in 2020 are being forced “to die from hunger or from the virus” and offers a raft of immediate, medium- and long-term recommendations for governments and employers’ organizations to address the crisis. Without urgent action, quarantine threatens to increase relative poverty levels in low-income countries by as much as 56 percentage points, according to the brief.
The far-reaching effects of the coronavirus pandemic have expanded global calls for a new social contract by worker rights organizations that are championing a “build back better” campaign as well as by some businesses that recognize the unsustainability of economic and social structures in which workers absorb the burdens of our economies but not the benefits.
Unions and worker rights activists are stepping into the breach, giving voice to workers’ struggles during lockdown, providing relief where resources allow and banding together to urge governments to provide financial and other social support for informally employed workers, as well as protection from harassment.
- The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) distributed protective gear, such as masks, gloves, soap and hand sanitizer to workers before shops were closed, and has met with the Kenyan government to lobby for support for informal workers, who comprise some 80 percent of the workforce.
- In Zimbabwe, informal economy association ZCIEA is giving voice to vendors’ struggle for survival under quarantine and advocating for their right to operate. In Harare, even though markets are legally open and deemed essential for citizens to secure food, ZCIEA Chitungwiza Territorial President Ratidzo Mfanechiya says that ZCIEA has had to intervene with the town manager, town council and local police to protect Jambanja market vendors’ right to operate free of harassment and forced removal during the five-week lockdown. She is also speaking out against gender-based violence, given that many women are reporting incidents of abuse while trapped at home with partners during lockdown.
- The Alliance Against Violence & Harassment in Jordan, a Solidarity Center partner, is urging the government to grant assistance to migrant workers, who have little or no pay but cannot return to their country of origin. The Alliance also asks for safety gear for migrant workers still on the job. The domestic workers solidarity network in Jordan shares information on COVID-19 and its impact on workers in multiple languages on its Facebook page.
- Leaders of multiple women’s worker rights movements banded together in May to make a joint call on the world’s governments to collaborate at all levels with domestic workers, street vendors, waste pickers and home-based workers during the COVID-19 crisis so that some of the world’s most important systems traditionally propped up by informally-employed women—including food supply, the care economy and waste management—are preserved.
- In India, where an estimated 415 million workers, or 90 percent of the country’s total workforce, toiled in informal-sector jobs in 2017–18, trade unions lobbied Labor Minister Santosh Gangawar for income support and eviction support for more than 40 categories of informal workers hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2018, the workforce in informal employment in Africa was 86 percent; in Asia and the Pacific and the Arab states, 70 percent; in the Americas, 40 percent; and in Europe and Central Asia, 25 percent.
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.
The parliament of the Bosnian Federation entity has proposed a labor law amendment that, if enacted, would give employers the authority in any future state of emergency to enact mass layoffs, slash hours and cut many workers’ pay to the minimum wage.
The labor federation in the entity, SSSBiH, adamantly opposes the proposed amendments because they clearly favor employers at the expense of workers during any future state of emergency.
If the text of the draft law is sent to parliamentary procedure, the labor federation said it would “take all necessary actions” to prevent its adoption.
The labor federation’s statement included the following summarized points:
- The proposed amendments were written behind closed doors without worker consultation.
- The claim that workers’ rights are protected by the obligation for employers to consult with unions is frivolous.
- The text of the proposed amendments envisages reduction of worker’s wages by the employer’s unilateral decision during a state of emergency.
- The amendments include provisions on paid leave without defined compensation, forced unpaid leave and at-will firings by employers, but do not provide increased compensation for essential workers who are exposed to infection during a pandemic.
“In the recent emergency, essential workers, including those in health care, were required to work without sufficient protection for their health. Many became sick on the job, and some died. Parliament should concentrate on setting standards all employers must meet in any future emergency to protect front-line workers, rather than enabling employers to lay off staff, cut pay and slash hours.” says Solidarity Center Europe/Central Asia Director Rudy Porter.
The federation’s full response to the proposed labor law amendments can be found here.