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This epidemic presents an occupational hazard to public sector workers who may be exposed to the virus in the course of their work.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak has spread from China to two dozen countries in less than two months. There have been tens of thousands of confirmed cases and well over a thousand deaths. This epidemic presents an occupational hazard to public sector workers who may be exposed to the virus in the course of their work. Coming up after years of cuts and inadequate funding of public health systems, it particularly poses a significant occupational safety and health risk to health care workers and their families worldwide.

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 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.

Taking action

Effective infection prevention and control is fundamental to safeguard workplace safety in the health sector. 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 dutybound 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 their services when governments and private employers fail to take necessary steps to safeguard workers’ occupational safety and health.

PSI affiliates have been 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 for adequate health and safety measures to be put in place, with solidarity support from PSI.

PSI will continue to 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 ensure that their occupational safety and health concerns are squarely addressed.

Public Services International will support our affiliates across the world to:
  • Present measures to safeguard workers employment and working conditions in the COVID-19 response, for collective bargaining

  • Urge 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;

    • provide free flu vaccinations to all workers that come into contact with the public;

    • increase funds to public health services including public health research into infectious diseases.

[1] This is without prejudice to our shared concern, raised by the Global Nurses United that WHO’s guidance on infection prevention and control for COVID-19 (which was adapted from its earlier guidelines on the MERS-CoV) might not adequately protect health workers.

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