Union members across Liberia have taken the lead in Ebola education and prevention among workers and their families, holding awareness trainings for thousands of workers and supplying them with hand-washing buckets and sanitation cleansers donated in part through the Solidarity Center West Africa Ebola Fund.
At the Firestone Natural Rubber Plantation in Margibi County, where more than 11,000 full-time and precarious workers labor, and where 75,000 people live in 125 Firestone camps and in nearby communities, the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union (FAWUL) leaders and shop-stewards have so far reached 1,337 people in eight camps with protective equipment and information. FAWUL is a longtime Solidarity Center ally.
Working with the Movement for Labor Rights & Justice (MOLAJ), a nongovernmental organization, FAWUL has distributed 191 chlorine-filled hand-washing buckets. FAWUL members living in the area are closely monitoring use of the buckets, are teaching community members how to mix the water and chlorine, and encouraging them to replenish the chlorine when it runs out. The buckets are placed where people frequently gather, such as at community water pumps, and distributed to households with more than eight occupants.
Among workers at ArcelorMittal Liberia (AML), the United Workers’ Union of Liberia (UWUL) and UWUL Local 4, together with MOLAJ, reached 750 people through labor’s Ebola awareness and preventive measures campaign, providing 50 hand-washing buckets in communities in the Buchanan area, where a majority of AML workers live. UWUL, also a Solidarity Center ally, reached 21 disabled workers and 35 sight-impaired workers with awareness and prevention training, providing hand-washing buckets and $100 from the local union to replenish the chlorine.
Elsewhere, the Dockworkers Union (DOWUL) is reaching out to workers in Monrovia’s port; the General Agricultural and Allied Workers’ Union of Liberia (GAAWUL) has held education trainings for nearly 1,000 workers and their families living in camps at the Sime Darby Rubber and Oil Palm Plantations; and UWUL also is engaging workers at the Putu Iron Ore Mining company.
Liberia accounts for more than half of all the official Ebola deaths, nearly 2,500, and some reports indicate that figure is much higher. Women in Liberia—because of their roles as caregivers and their work in precarious informal economy jobs and as health care workers—are overwhelmingly affected: Up to 75 percent of people killed by Ebola have been women. Children orphaned by the disease often are left alone to survive in the street.
The Ebola crisis highlights how women’s dual roles as workers and caregivers puts them on the frontlines of low-wage, unsafe work. Credit: Impatientoptimist.org
Unions worldwide are mobilizing around World Day for Decent Work, held annually on October 7 to raise public and official awareness of the critical need for labor rights for the vast numbers of workers who toil in unsafe, unhealthy conditions; receive wages that cannot sustain them and their families; have no voice at work through union representation; and no access to retirement security, health care or other fundamental protections.
Some 39 percent of the global labor force—1.2 billion women and men—live in poverty, surviving on less than $2 a day per person. With fewer jobs available in the formal economy, millions of workers are forced to survive by laboring as street vendors, domestic workers and cab drivers. The vast majority of these informal economy workers are women.
In fact, gender equality is at the heart of decent work. Working women—and the caring work women do, such as taking care of the family and running the household—are central to enabling communities to function and thrive. Yet women work in the lowest-paid jobs, have less access to union representation, and often suffer from violence and other abuses both at work and in the home.
The ongoing Ebola crisis highlights the extent to which women workers are on the front lines, performing difficult tasks in dangerous and even deadly environments: In the 2001–2002 Ebola outbreak, 75 percent of people killed by the virus were women. In the current epidemic, women account for more than half of all Ebola cases throughout West Africa, while in Liberia, up to 75 percent of those killed by Ebola have been women.
Women have disproportionately contracted Ebola for reasons that illustrate the extent to which women have been denied decent work.
Women predominate in the health care sector, where in West Africa they care for Ebola patients in facilities that do not have proper protective equipment and procedures. Women serve as primary caregivers at home, where they are exposed to the deadly disease while nursing loved ones who have fallen ill. And women, many of whom are principal or sole economic providers for their families, are disproportionately poor and are concentrated in the low-wage informal sector, where there is little or no access to health insurance or the financial resources that enable them to take precautions against the virus.
In Liberia, 30 percent of households were headed by women in 2009, and 90 percent of Liberian women workers toil in the informal economy or agriculture, according to the World Bank. Research in Guinea has shown that the load of family and professional activities on women translates to 15 hours to 17 work hours a day.
Seriously examining why women disproportionately contract Ebola would mean “tackling systemic problems, such as women’s unequal access to adequate health care or the finances they might require for treatment,” writes Lauren Wolfe, director of Women under Siege, a journalism project on sexualized violence. “In short, it would mean challenging fundamental and dangerous disparities.” The same inequalities that result in a lack of decent work for women.
As Columbia University epidemiology professor Wafaa El-Sadr told Wolfe: Looking at who dies in an outbreak “shows you who has power and who doesn’t.
Unions in Liberia and Nigeria are teaching union members, their families and local communities how to prevent transmission of the Ebola virus and speaking out on behalf of health care and other front-line workers.
The United Workers’ Union of Liberia (UWUL) and the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL) announced a joint action plan last month and are currently directing community-based health education trainings for protection against transmission of Ebola virus disease (EVD).
The Movement for Labor Rights and Justice (MOLAJ)—a grassroots organization with links to UWUL and FAWUL—is providing Ebola awareness training, disinfectants and hand-washing buckets to Liberian communities.
“We wants to use [MOLAJ] to launch an S.O.S. call to all our partners to assist in any way possible to combat this dreadful EVD in our country to save the lives of workers and their families,” says David Sakoh, UWUL general secretary. MOLAJ’s efforts were boosted by a $15,000 donation from the United Steelworkers (USW) last month.
An effective union response is critical in Liberia. The World Health Organization (WHO) concluded last week that—with 14 of Liberia’s 15 counties having confirmed cases—the Ebola outbreak has completely outstripped the Liberian government’s ability to respond.
Unions in Nigeria are playing an important role in getting information to the grassroots about how to prevent Ebola infection and taking the lead in pressing for protection protocols for healthcare and other front-line workers.
The National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives (NANNM), the Medical and Health Workers’ Union of Nigeria (MHWUN), and the Union of Textile Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria (NUTGTWN) are conducting trainings for members as well as providing train-the-trainer workshops in communities, so as to broaden their outreach and better equip workers and communities to fight the infection.
The Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) and several Nigerian sector unions are also distributing posters and handbills that explain Ebola and how workers can protect themselves and care for others, through local branch offices. In addition, the federation and several sector unions are calling for personal protective devices for at-risk workers and for the government to issue standard protocols for health care and other workers likely to be exposed to the virus—including port workers, air transportation workers and border workers. Unions representing healthcare workers are distributing union-printed copies of a WHO document providing infection prevention techniques for healthcare workers.
Last month the WHO reported that 12 Ebola cases were successfully contained within Lagos. Recently, though, several cases were confirmed in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. By September 8, 477 people were under quarantine in Port Harcourt and by last Friday that number had risen to 490.
The Ebola outbreak has killed more than 2,000 people across West Africa, including Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria and Senegal. Last week the WHO estimated that as many as 20,000 people in West Africa may become infected.