Trade Union Movement

COVID-19 and Workers’Organizations: Interview with Sharan Burrow

What should be the key policy measures to relaunch the Global economy affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic? Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) shares her views on the needs and expectations from the trade union movement on how to address the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. Ms Burrow calls also for more solidarity and the need to strengthen Multilateralism…

News | 04 May 2020
Contact(s): Mamadou Kaba SOUARE,

ACTRAV INFO: What is your evaluation about the COVID-19 crisis, and the consequences for workers and their organizations across the Globe?

Covid-19 will be remembered as the virus that stopped the world. We are living through a period that can only be described as the greatest act of solidarity in history, as people give up civic freedoms to save lives. And while we all agree that managing the health crisis is the overwhelming priority, the social and economic consequences are and will be dramatic in an already troubled world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on people’s health but also on economies, as shutdowns, confinement and other measures now cover most of the world’s population.

On May I we salute the workers in health, care and other frontline sectors whose work is essential to saving lives and providing vital products and services and who selflessly put their own health at risk.

However, we share the ILOs assessment of the risk of around 300 million jobs or the equivalent in full time hours being lost in the second quarter of 2020. In addition, some 250 million people could face starvation and Oxfam reports that 500,000 million people could be thrown back into poverty.

ACTRAV INFO: In your opinion what have to be the immediate responses to the epidemic to protect the health and livelihoods of workers?

Many of the world's governments have responded to this first phase of this crisis and we applaud those governments that are making full use of social dialogue to tackle the crisis and secure wages and income support for their people. The provision of sick pay, wage guarantees, income support for workers of platform business, freelancers and other forms of non-standard work are also crucial.

But we ask them to do more. As we witness the plight of workers in poorer countries fired or abandoned due to collapsing supply chains or day laborers and workers in the informal economy, we call for international support.

Governments need to act to deliver urgent social protection for health and income support. It is almost 10 years since the UN endorsed global protection floors for the poorest of countries after the Bachelet report. It was in 2015 this was written into the SDGs with the promise of Goal 1.3. Now it is time to deliver.

Compared to around $10 trillion being spent on this crisis $35 billion would fund 5 years of social protection for the 28 poorest countries and build both a basic economy and resilience against the next crisis. Every dollar after that would assist coverage in other countries. If we can’t exercise global solidarity and share resources now for health and income support now, then when?

And of course we condemn those governments that refuse to cooperate with unions at home or with other countries internationally as well as those who deny the reality of the pandemic, or allow violence and human rights abuses at enormous cost to their own people. The ITUC and it members will stand in solidarity against these attacks.

ACTRAV INFO: Furthermore, what are the important policy measures in the medium term to ensure that the impact of the economic crisis on workers around the globe is mitigated?

The world already faces a convergence of crises.

We have massive inequality driving an age of anger with civil unrest and a distrust in democracy that was already recognised as a major risk to economies;

The climate emergency is and will remain an imperative for action to save human beings from extinction;

Progress on every indicator has stalled for women and violence against women remains largely unchecked;

Racism and xenophobia are on the rise as a tool of fear on which far-right politics are built;

We are facing the choices associated with the best and worst impacts of technology; and

Multilateralism is in crisis as people lose trust in globalisation.

And now we have Covid-19.

As we look to recovery and building resilience against future crisis events no one can be left behind this time. Massive investment in public health and in care is vital to ensure that all have access and that full respect for the rights of all workers is ensured.

Thus re-launching of the global economy must ensure robust public services with three other critical objectives:
  • Jobs: Millions of jobs are being destroyed. Full employment must be the goal, with decent work for all, healthy and safe conditions, an end to precarious work and formalisation of informal work.
  • Incomes: The wage share of the global economy has been falling for decades and risks plummeting with this crisis. Minimum living wages must be in place everywhere, the right to collective bargaining has to be ensured for all workers and the gender pay gap must be closed.
  • Social Protection: Billions of people have been left without social protection and are at grave risk from the devastating health and the economic effects of this crisis. Now is the time for global cooperation to fund social protection for all. The world cannot turn its back on those most in need now or in reconstruction of an inclusive and resilient future.
This is why the ITUC is calling for a New Social Contract - the ILO Centenary Declaration is a solid foundation for this.

ACTRAV INFO: What is your advice for workers’ organizations in engaging/negotiating with employers and governments to influence policy making and best protect workers around the world?

We need a new social contract and people and the planet must be the foundations for the future. Without social dialogue, we will not dissipate the age of anger driven by inequality and set to be multiplied by this crisis that has exposed the fragility of an unequal world.

The antidote to this crisis is in the solidarity that is the lifeblood of trade unions, throughout history and today. All countries must work together to overcome the initial COVID-19 waves and to prepare for the future. Planning for and investing in a more equal world where we can build jobs on a living planet is the only pathway. Trade unions will fight for just that.

ACTRAV INFO: Finally, how can the role of Multilateralism, which is based on solidarity and global coordination, be enhanced to combat the crisis and beyond?

Multilateralism is in crisis. The ambition of global leaders after two world wars and the Great Depression of last century was a social floor with a global set of rules and international institutions to ensure development. The corporate greed of hyper globalization since the 1980s has distorted the vision of those leaders and their legacy. The impacts of this crisis have brutally exposed the failings of the model of globalisation, which has been imposed on working women and men. Public health systems have been debilitated by austerity and the erosion of workers’ rights has left untold millions of workers exposed. Women, migrant workers, ethnic minorities and others who face discrimination are bearing a particularly heavy burden.

This must change. Multilateralism must be reformed to ensure that people and the planet come first, that democratic rights sit at the heart of a new social contract and that responsible business conduct is assured by requiring a social license to operate with mandated due diligence.

We must change the rules to build a just future for all.