Ensuring that trade union and labour rights are at the centre of the COVID response is essential to reduce occupational safety and health risk.
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak is now characterized as a pandemic. By mid-March, the number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold in barely two weeks, and the number of countries affected tripled. Reported cases crossed the threshold of 100,000 in 114 countries, spread across all inhabited continents. Almost 4,500 infected persons have died and “thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospitals.”
The World Health Organization has expressed deep concern on both “the alarming levels of spread and severity, and the alarming levels of inaction”. While some countries are taking action to stem the tide of the outbreak, response by governments in most countries has not been commensurate to the grievous challenge posed to humankind by the pandemic.
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This worrisome level of inaction stems from structural incapacitation on one hand and lack of political will on the other. Generally, years of austerity measures with cuts in public funding of health and other social services have resulted in inadequate staffing levels and infrastructure. Privatisation has further weakened the health system and undermined crisis preparedness.
Unfortunately, in many countries that have thus far demonstrated a lack of political will to take the necessary public health measures to safeguard the lives and wellbeing of people, governments have been ready to act, to prop up the market as the outbreak takes its toll on profits.
Workers, and particularly public sector workers – members of PSI affiliates across the world, have been at the forefront of the global response. These workers are faced with the occupational hazard of becoming exposed to the virus during their work. Members of their families equally have a higher risk of infection than other members of the population as a result of this.
Ensuring that trade union and labour rights are at the centre of the COVID response is essential to reduce this occupational safety and health risk. It is also important for effective response. Previous outbreaks of highly infectious communicable diseases have demonstrated that public health outcomes are significantly improved when labour rights are respected, and unions are able to effectively represent workers exposed and potentially exposed to the disease.
Public health risks increase when workers are unable to act collectively to address occupational safety and health risks; when full, appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) is not provided to all workers likely to come into contact with infected people; when workers are not provided with adequate sick leave; when workers will not be adequately paid if they voluntarily quarantine themselves, and when governments and employers refuse to implement the precautionary principle, fail to provide transparent and detailed information about the state of the virus and the risks and when governments and employers do not involve workers’ representatives in developing occupational safety and health and public health policies.
Trade unions and workers have to be well informed about the dynamics of the spread of the COVID outbreak. We have to follow daily the situation reports of the World Health Organization. We must also demand full transparency and accountability from national, regional/provincial, municipal/local governments in our countries, and employers/management in our workplaces.
Sharing information of actions taken by unions and workers in different countries is essential to inform and inspire similar actions.
Trade unions must thus engage with the relevant health authorities in their localities and countries, to have relevant information. This should not be in a passive manner. Trade unions should utilise information of best occupational safety and health practice in other countries to demand improvement in OSH measures implemented in their own countries and workplaces.
Such informed demands must be based on “the precautionary principle, which holds that lacking scientific consensus that a proposed action, policy, or act is not harmful – particularly if that harm has the potential to be catastrophic – such action, policy, or act should not be implemented and the maximum safeguards should be pursued”.
Solidarity has always been a fundamental ethic of trade unions as an international movement. Sharing information of actions taken by unions and workers in different countries is also essential to inform and inspire similar actions. And internationally, as the trade union body in official relations with the World Health Organization, we have been actively engaged in the WHO epidemic information network (EPI-WIN) and collaboration with ILO-ACTRAV.
Effective infection prevention and control is fundamental to safeguard workplace safety. Governments and employers are responsible for making sure that all necessary preventive and protective measures and procedures are put in place. And we as workers are duty-bound to follow established occupational safety and health procedures and use provided protocols.
Respect for trade union and labour rights must be a central element of response to the COVID-19 outbreak in all countries. This is important for workers to be able to stand up for the unambiguous implementation of clearly spelt out infection prevention and control measures and be able to withdraw our services when governments and private employers fail to take necessary steps to safeguard workers’ occupational safety and health.
PSI affiliates are constantly taking action to help protect their members
They have; promoted general advice, issued educational bulletins, encouraged members to stay informed, provided clinical guidelines, and provided information for different cadres of health workers and advice on the use of preventive personal equipment.
Unions have also negotiated collective agreements which enable affected workers to receive paid special leave in Victoria, Australia. And in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Health Employees Alliance embarked on strike to demand adequate health and safety measures be put in place, with solidarity support from PSI.
PSI affiliates have equally mobilised public opinion and organised policy and legislative advocacy to make sure people are put over profit concerns in the pandemic response. These have included telephone town hall meetings, letters to legislators and online petitions.
PSI will continue to advocate for international action that involves both a response to the pandemic and addressing the roots of the outbreak’s spread and severity. We will also facilitate exchange of information and experiences of unions. And we will give top priority to standing in solidarity with workers where they have to fight to safeguard their occupational safety and health.
Public Services International will support our affiliates across the world to:
keep abreast with the World Health Organization “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak” web page for daily updates and follow the daily the WHO epidemic information network (EPI-WIN) for regularly updated advice, information and resources on the outbreak
ensure that national clinical management guidelines are built on the World Health Organization’s guidelines, and integrate measures from other relevant documents like the ILO’s “Practical and administrative responses to an infectious disease in the workplace” issued during the 2004 SARS outbreak
promote members awareness of the “rights, roles and responsibilities of health workers, including key considerations for occupational safety and health”
present further measures to safeguard workers' employment and working conditions in the COVID-19 response, for collective bargaining
organise policy advocacy and mobilise public opinion with demands for governments to:
meet with representatives of trade unions and particularly unions representing workers who may be exposed to the virus in the course of their work, including health workers and workers in health settings, emergency service workers, workers in airports, airlines and border control, hotel workers and workers in public spaces
recognise that COVID-19 is an occupational safety and health threat and that governments and employers must respect all obligations detailed in ILO Conventions 155, 187 and 161 as well as ILO Recommendations 194, 197 and 171 and Protocol to Convention 155
provide comprehensive personal protective equipment (PPE) to any worker who may come into contact with infected people or anyone that has come from an infected area and provide adequate PPE to all workers working in public or highly frequented areas
respect the right of workers to choose not to work when their health and safety may be at risk or when workers or their families have underlying health issues that could be aggravated by the virus
ensure that any worker, including informal sector workers, casual or sub-contracted workers, suffers no loss of wages or conditions during any period of quarantine
provide transparent and timely information to workers and their unions about the number and location of infections and the most up to date information about the disease
increase funds to public health services including public health research into infectious diseases
12th March 2020
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