Workers’ rights in the Coronavirus era

In times of emergency everything is more complex; chaos reigns, activities become more and more frenetic, national, regional and local legislation merge into one another, confusion dominates. Recent regulatory interventions have forced the world of work to adapt to the health emergency with high complications and consequences, as four out of five people are hit by the pandemic.

The Coronavirus crisis is having a devastating effect on employment worldwide, with more than one billion workers at risk of a pay cut or losing their jobs.

Doctors are in the front line together with all other professionals of the national health system. They are rightly defined by everybody as heroes, but they are also the victims of many business executives of dubious competence. People of higher power in both public and private sectors have been taking advantage of their dominant position to illegally exercise power they do not have, distorting at will emergency regulations issued by the Government. What was initially intended to alleviate the emotional and work load that all the protagonists of health care are facing at the moment is being blatantly disregarded.

Healthcare workers may be exposed to direct or indirect biohazard through contact with infected patients or materials, including body fluids, surfaces such as medical equipment and contaminated devices and air. They are experiencing exhausting working hours facing death all around themselves. Not to mention the casualties among NHS staff themselves.

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Job catastrophe: 1.25 billion workers at risk

According to the ILO (International Labour Organization), an agency of the United Nations, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a catastrophic global effect on working hours and earnings. The COVID-19 crisis is expected to wipe out 6.7 percent of working hours globally in the second quarter of 2020 – the equivalent to 195 million full-time workers. 

Accommodation and food services, manufacturing, retail, and business and administrative activities are the sectors at risk, according to the ILO. The future will depend on recovery in the second half of the year and on how policy measures will boost the demand for labour. Both developed and developing economies are staring at the possibility a catastrophe. It’s important to act fast, together and decisively. 

ILO reports are not looking good for workers

The Geneva-based United Nations agency had already published a report on 18th March, in which 25 million unemployed people were forecast. But in the latest estimate, the information on the effects of the Coronavirus at a sectoral and regional level is much worse. The crisis is expected to reduce the number of working hours worldwide by 6.7% in the second quarter of 2020, equivalent to 195 million full-time workers. But according to the new publication, in some sectors there are about 1.25 billion workers at high risk due to the “drastic and devastating” increase in redundancies and reductions in wages and working hours. “The choices we make today will directly affect the way this crisis develops and the lives of billions of people,” says ILO’s CEO Guy Ryder.

ILO foresees devastating loss of income 

The UN agency responsible for promoting decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equality, security and human dignity for men and women, also foresees huge losses among different groups of countries, especially those with a medium-high income (7.0 per cent or 100 million full-time workers), far surpassing the impacts of the 2009 financial crisis.

The sectors most at risk are housing, catering, manufacturing, retail and commercial and administrative activities. The possible increase in global unemployment in 2020 will depend substantially on future developments and measures taken.

Also according to ILO, there is a high risk that end-of-year global unemployment figures will be significantly higher than the initial projection of 25 million more unemployed people worldwide.

More than 4 out of 5 people (81%) in the global workforce – amounting to 3.3 billion workers – are currently affected by the total or partial closure of productive activities. T here will be increases in layoffs and reductions in wages and working hours in what ILO defines as “the worst global crisis since the Second World War”. Many workers are in low-paid, low-skilled jobs where a sudden loss of income can be devastating. But across the planet, as many as two billion people working in the so-called informal sector, mainly in emerging and developing economies, are at risk.

As the analysis shows, there is a need for integrated, large-scale measures that focus on four pillars: supporting business, employment and income; stimulating the economy and employment; protecting workers; and establishing a social dialogue between employer and employee governments to find solutions to this crisis.

“This is the biggest test for multilateral cooperation in over 75 years,” explains Ryder. “If one country fails, then we all fail. We need to find global solutions that help all segments of our society, especially those who are most vulnerable or not able to help themselves. By taking effective measures we can limit the impact of this crisis and mitigate the scars it will leave”.

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Which Brands Are Acting Responsibly toward Suppliers and Workers?

The dramatic spread of COVID-19 has disrupted lives, communities and businesses worldwide. Organizations around the world are coming together and finding innovative ways to minimize the impact on public health and to limit disruptions to economies and supply chains. A lot of brands are changing their production to ventilators, others are making masks or sanitizers. The world’s leading 3D printing manufacturers are rapidly respond to COVID-19 as a community by providing ventilators, masks, swabs, face shields and more.

Covid-19 has caused and is going to cause financial challenges for both workers and businesses. Corporations have a responsibility to manage the crisis sensibly and honor obligations to suppliers and workers. Many brands and retailers responded to the crisis by canceling (or “holding”) orders or demanding retroactive price reductions, for goods already in production or completed and ready to ship.

The Worker Rights Consortium has a list of the brands who have committed to pay in full for orders completed and in production, as well as those who have made no such promises. You can find the list here.

If you have any observations, information or suggestion about workers’ rights during this tough time, please write us. And please be safe; we can only hope that everything will eventually turn out alright for everyone.

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Veronica De Biasio

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