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.
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.
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 unionsuccessfully 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.
Unions throughout Morocco are negotiating wage guarantees and other measures to safeguard the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of workers in the country’s hospitality industry—cooks, wait staff, hotel cleaners, tour operators—who have been furloughed or lost their jobs as travel and tourism shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“Workers in the tourism sector have suffered from this pandemic, as the tourism season had just begun in a number of regions, and the infections led to mass cancellations even before the government of Morocco introduced containment measures at a national level,” says Naima Hilali, a staff member of the hotel union affiliated with the Union of Moroccan Workers (UMT) who works at Hotel Lulido in Casablanca. “The hospitality sector will face a massive challenge in recovering for many months or up to a year after the crisis.”
Backed by the UMT, workers say they will not take unpaid “holidays” during furloughs and are demanding a three-month wage guarantee until June. Unions also are negotiating three-months’ wages for temporary and seasonal workers and are assisting laid-of workers employed by subcontracting agencies in getting necessary documents to qualify for a $200 monthly support payment from Morocco’s social security fund. Some subcontractors have not submitted documents needed for workers to benefit from the fund, created for private-sector workers who lose their jobs due to the coronavirus.
“The very strict requirements of collecting unemployment benefits means that many workers will not benefit from the allowances,” says Mohamed Aji, union general secretary at Hotel Farah.
Unions Advance Safety Guidelines for Workers
Unions also are negotiating with employers to ensure safety measures are in place for workers still on the job and are reaching out to workers with information on protecting themselves against the coronavirus.
“UMT shop stewards have taken measures to sensitize workers on the necessary precautions and health measures developed by the Ministry of Health,” says Zakaria Himer, general secretary of the union at Hotel Sofitel. “Other measures include adopting work rotation to reduce the number of workers at the workplace, and giving priority to people with immunity diseases.”
Travel and tourism contributed some seven percent of Morocco’s GDP in 2018, and the likely long-term closure of hotels, restaurants and tour operating companies across the country mean workers will need considerable support for many months.
“The government is making a significant effort through establishing the fund, but this solution does not respond adequately to the massive needs of workers,” says Hilali. “This requires a social and legal strategy to support the workers and employers in the sector. So, we demand the state and public officials to intervene to rescue the sector and its workers.”
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The Solidarity Center has nearly 30 field offices and works in more than 60 countries, with a focus on the Global South. With more than 20 years of experience as the largest US-based grassroots worker rights organization worldwide, we have built a deep trust and reputation with local trade union partners, worker associations and workers worldwide. As a result, we are uniquely positioned to quickly identify trends that impact working people and opportunities for change through campaigns and cross-movement building.
We are proud to work with more than 900 partners including 500 trade union partners. Eighty-three percent of our 900 partnerships exist at the local grassroots level. Solidarity Center staff include labor activists experienced in organizing, advocacy and grassroots internationalism, recognized labor rights lawyers, and migration policy and gender specialists. The Solidarity Center has also built strong relationships with civil society partners including worker centers and community organizations at the intersection of worker rights, environmental activism and the feminist movement.
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The COVID-19 crisis is especially devastating for the 50 million workers who make clothes, shoes and textiles in factories around the world. With declining sales, corporate retailers are canceling orders and factories are laying off workers, most without pay. Those forced to work often must do so in unsafe factories to support themselves and their families. The majority of garment workers are women who are their family’s primary wage earner.
But through their unions, tens of thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh are successfully standing up to employers to ensure they are paid during plant closures and have proper protective equipment if they must report to work.
In Gazipur, factory-level unions and worker union leaders representing 10,000 garment workers at Hop Lun Ltd. factories negotiated key pay and safety measures. Workers will receive their full month’s salary for March as the factory closes from March 26–April 5 during the government lockdown. When they are back on the job, they will have access to hotlines to call if they are ill and need guidance. The phone numbers of the union president and top management also are available so workers can directly access assistance in case of emergency.
The Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) union had recently negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with Hop Lun Ltd. factories that includes a 10 percent annual pay increase.
At Natural Denims Ltd., where some 8,200 workers signed a collective bargaining agreement in January, SGSF worked with factory management to ensure workers receive their full pay during the factory closure. Management also has established a 10-member committee of union members and management volunteers who will assist workers who become ill or face any emergency during the closure, and are developing plans to address worker safety in coming months.
In Ukraine, as workers face employer efforts to shortchange their pay, lay them off or take other adverse actions during the COVID-19 crisis, many are turning to Labor Initiatives, a Solidarity Center-supported Ukrainian NGO that provides legal assistance to workers.
Teleworking from home under Ukraine’s COVID-19 quarantine, the six-member staff, along with eight legal student interns, are fielding questions from e-mail, Facebook, Viber and the organization’s hotline.
“We are working until 1 or 2 a.m. each day,” says George Sandul, Labor Initiatives legal director.
In the first week of the quarantine, Labor Initiatives lawyers provided some 100 consultations, and the organization’s FAQ page on labor rights during the quarantine now has more than 60,000 views. The website, Our Kyiv, also posted the FAQs and reports 100,000 views, says Sandul.
Labor Initiatives staff are addressing questions from many workers reporting their employer is not providing safeguards against the novel coronavirus. Railroad drivers, grocery store workers and health care workers, especially in small cities, say they have no personal protective equipment. Ukraine’s occupational safety and health law stipulates that if working conditions could result in employees becoming sick or injured, an employee may refuse work if the employer does not provide safe conditions.
Yet many employers are not abiding by the law, says Sandul—unless workers are represented by unions. For instance, at Nova Poshta, a logistical company where 14,000 of the 30,000 workers are union members, the union successfully pushed the employer to provide antiseptics and protective masks and gloves, in addition to paid leave.
All Nova Poshta delivery offices are now equipped with special transparent barriers to better protect operators working with clients. In addition, Nova Poshta provided one month’s health insurance for all employees, telework options and paid leave. Labor Initiatives lawyers provided legal assistance to workers during an organizing campaign at the company in 2018, and also helped them negotiate a strong collective bargaining agreement.
Although Parliament passed a temporary law effective during the quarantine that provides for telework and unlimited vacations, Sandul says the measures are implemented at employers’ discretion, and the law does not offer guidance on how to implement it. The varying company policies that result, and the challenges in ensuring employers honor requirements for some paid leave, mean the calls, messages and Facebook posts keep pouring in for Labor Initiatives staff.
Shutdown Hits Ukrainian Workers Hard
Up to 40 percent of workers in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, could end up unemployed due to COVID-19. Gig workers—the informal sector comprises up to 35 percent of Ukraine’s economy—are especially vulnerable, and are not covered under the emergency legislation. Many will continue working through the quarantine, risking their health, without any protective guarantees from their companies.
The coronavirus crisis “showed the giant systemic problems with informal work,” says Sandul. While the government is fining employers $1,700 for each informal worker who lost a job, “informal workers are very vulnerable in this situation because they have no wages,” he says.
Another government move also may make it more difficult for workers to get by. Small employers received a moratorium on their required contributions to the country’s social insurance fund through April 30, along with tax breaks. The new policy may reduce the insurance fund and make it more difficult to pay sick leave and even pensions, says Sandul.
A ‘Tragic Situation’ if Proposed Labor Law Was Enacted
The COVID-19 crisis brings into stark relief the potentially harsh outcome of labor law revisions the Ukrainian Parliament has considered in recent months, one that Sandul and other legal experts say will be back on the table after the pandemic is contained.
“The [proposed] law doesn’t cover OSH [occupational safety and health] at all,” says Sandul. If the proposed law were in place now, “the front-line workers who keep critical services running during this crisis would have no way to protect their own lives. It would be a tragic situation.”
One draft law, still in Parliament, would create an at-will employment system with no collective bargaining in which employees may be fired at the employer’s whim. It has been denounced by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and other global bodies as violating the freedom to form unions. It also would result in short-term individual labor contracts and zero hours contracts; and overtime paid at a fifth of current rates.
“We need to provide people with wages to eat something, literally,” says Sandul. “If this law was passed, Ukraine would be vulnerable.”
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