COVID-19 and the World of Work

Symposium on Trade Unions in Times of COVID-19: What are the objectives and expectations?

From 17 to 19 November 2021, trade union leaders, experts, academics and ILO officials will attend a global symposium to exchange on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world of work. Maria Helena ANDRE, Director of the ILO’s Bureau for Workers’ Activities (ACTRAV) explains the objectives and expectations from this global event …

News | 15 November 2021
Maria Helena ANDRE, Director of the ILO's Bureau for Workers'Activities (ACTRAV)

ACTRAV INFO: Why do you consider it so relevant to have an in-depth discussion on the issue of Trade Unions in Times of COVID-19?

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a devastating impact on the world of work. As many regions are approaching their fourth or even fifth wave and the greater inequities across the globe in terms of vaccine distribution as well as the means to support an economic recovery become more and more apparent, continuous dialogue amongst trade unions, internationally acclaimed experts on labour issue as well as with us at the ILO is more important than ever.

Since 2020, millions of workers across the world have lost their lives, incomes and livelihoods. Furthermore, the ability of trade unions to support workers has been severely affected by lockdowns and restrictive measures, as is showcased in our own publications such as The Global Trend Analysis on the Role of Trade Unions in Times of COVID-19. Many unions have reported on an increase of violations of workers’ and trade union rights worldwide.

However, what we have also seen throughout this pandemic is the capacity of workers’ organizations to remain resilient and to find new avenues on how to address this crisis. Many developed innovative ways to organize and reach out to their members through providing services virtually, through both physical and online campaigns or through organizing humanitarian actions that go beyond their traditional membership base. Trade unions helped many workers keep their jobs and income as well as their access to social protection. Furthermore, workers’ organizations in many countries contributed actively towards the formulation and implementation of recovery policies to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19, showcasing the importance of inclusive social dialogue processes as the vehicle towards a human-centred recovery.

From an ILO perspective, we think that for workers’ organizations this pandemic can act as a wake-up call to discuss how to adapt established practices and internal structures towards the new realities workers and their representative organisations face today. We should consider the COVID-19 crisis not just as a threat, but also as an opportunity for the revitalisation of a labour movement that has been in decline for several decades now. Trade unions need innovative strategies to organize and defend all workers and to be a vital partner in inclusive and effective social dialogue processes. This will be at the heart of discussions during the symposium.

Another key lesson learned throughout the pandemic has been the great importance of effective social dialogue and cooperation between governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations. While this has been highly effective in formulating inclusive economic and social policies in many parts of the world, it has by no means been the case everywhere. We need more than ever effective social dialogue as the basis to design and implement appropriate strategies and policies to address the COVID-19 crisis. More efforts have to be done to ensure that both tripartite and bipartite social dialogue are the cornerstone for implementing national policies with the full buy-in from the social partners who effectively are closest to their respective members. This is also stressed by the ILO global call to action for a human-centred recovery and the ILO Centenary Declaration on the future of work. Workers’ organizations must be involved at all stages to build the post COVID-19 world and for that, we need strong and representative workers’ organizations.

Let me remind you that even before the pandemic, trade unions were subject to an ever-changing world of work that was affected by trends such as changing patterns in globalisation as well as technological, ecological and demographic changes at a faster pace than ever before. This included major transitions within labour markets such as a greater informalisation of the economy, as well as greater precarity for many workers around the globe.

Furthermore, Covid-19 saw many of these trends exacerbating the impact on workers Transitions from normal working situation to lockdowns and tele-working. This has asked serious questions on how we govern labour markets and the role of social dialogue and social partners within this. I think workers must reflect on what these transitions means for their organizations.

To that end, we at the ILO have been stressing the issue of trade union revitalization. Revitalization, should be understood as innovating tactics and coalitions to reinforce trade unions as strong, relevant, democratic and representative actors in organizing and serving the ‘new precarious workforce’ both in the Global North and South. I think it is time to act now and the ILO stands ready to assist the labour movement in discussing trade union transformation to better address the challenges in the world of work.

ACTRAV INFO: The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated inequalities, unemployment and precarity in the world of work. What are your expectations going forward?

According to the latest ILO Monitor, the global hours worked have reduced severely throughout 2020 and even more than one and a half years later it is becoming apparent that a full recovery is not in sight. In fact in 2021 hours worked will remain 4.3 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, the equivalent of 125 million full-time jobs.

Furthermore, the pandemic reminded us of growing inequalities in terms of income both between and within countries, of access to healthcare, to vaccinations, to digital infrastructure, to social protection, to decent and formal employment and the respect of fundamental principles and rights of workers.

Given the growing challenges, we hope that the symposium will provide a platform for trade union leaders as well as experts from around the world to reflect and exchange best practices towards the achievement of 5 objectives:
  • Devise strategies towards a job-rich and inclusive economic recovery that supports those groups of workers hardest-hit by the crisis.
  • Devise strategies towards Trade Union Revitalization
  • Strengthen social dialogue processes as the cornerstone of an inclusive recovery from Covid-19
  • Ensure stronger engagement of ILO constituents with full support of the office to implement the goals set out in the centenary declaration and the Global Call to Action for a Human-centred recovery that is inclusive, sustainable and resilient.
  • Support stronger engagement of Unions to address global challenges such as Climate change and Just Transition, including stronger involvement in the Multilateral system towards achieving the goals set out in the Agenda 2030.
We therefore looking forward the conclusions of this important global event which will shape our priorities to better assist our constituents.