Trade Union Movement

Recovering from the COVID-19 crisis: What policies are needed?

For workers, what risks and opportunities has the COVID-19 crisis brought about? Catelene Passchier, Chair of the Workers’ Group of the ILO Governing Body shares her views on the policies needed to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. She also calls for more regulation of digital work and enhancement of social dialogue and tripartism to provide social justice and decent work for all.

News | 29 May 2020
Contact(s): Mamadou Kaba SOUARE,

ACTRAV INFO: How would you assess the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on workers and their organizations and what key policies should be applied to recover from the Covid-19 crisis?

This week, the International Labour Conference (ILC) was supposed to start its work. The issues on the agenda would have been very important to discuss, especially in today’s Covid-19 crisis. They include social protection and inequalities in work, as well as the important tasks carried out by the Committee on the Application of Standards. We will now have to make sure that these issues feature prominently in next year’s ILC agenda, and that the risks and challenges laid bare by Covid-19 will be taken into account in future work.

The Covid-19 crisis has greatly affected everyone worldwide. But workers in healthcare and other fields of care, as well as those working in vital services and sectors like retail, food production and transport, have been shouldering the most. They have also taken the biggest risks, with their health and safety at work insufficiently protected too often. This shows the fundamental importance of this issue that the ILO should address as a high priority.

At the same time, millions of workers at the lower end of our labour markets, in precarious jobs or the informal economy, have suffered from lockdowns everywhere. They are paying a high price, losing their jobs and livelihoods without enjoying proper protection in social security. This leaves many of them in poverty, unable to feed their families. Universal social protection is therefore needed more than ever. There is an urgent need for a global, coordinated effort to implement universal social protection, with major investment in funding it, especially to help the poorest countries and regions provide their populations with concrete support.

Let me stress that this crisis includes a prominent gender dimension. Most of the ‘heroes’ of the crisis are women: females make up the majority of workers in healthcare and essential services. Many of them are also migrants. Yet most of them are still suffering from poor wages and poor working conditions, while the crisis has increased their burden of unpaid work. In the informal economy and at the lower ends of global supply chains hit hardest by the crisis, such as the garment industry, it is mostly women who are losing their jobs without enjoying access to any social protection. Add to that the reports we are receiving from around the world about a crisis-induced increase in domestic violence against women and girls, and it becomes clear that any policy package for dealing with consequences of the crisis and recovery from it must feature a strong, inclusive approach to gender. 

For millions of workers, the effects of today’s crisis are already devastating. But the prospect of a quick, fair recovery are likewise gloomy, with the crisis making existing inequalities even worse. Yet ever more unions in various countries and regions are standing up for workers’ rights and protection and claiming a place at the table to discuss relief measures and recovery plans. The ILO is well placed to remind the international community of the key role that social justice, social dialogue and respect for workers’ rights must play in any plan to deal with the current crisis and the recovery from it.

In its May 1 solidarity message, the Workers’ Group called upon governments and employers to address a number of key issues without delay.
One central issue is certainly the need to strengthen the public sector. The crisis has exposed how decades of austerity and neo-liberal policies have left public services and the public sector incapable of properly responding to the crisis. It is high time to improve public services and the public sector, with huge investments to make sure people enjoy universal access to healthcare, water, sanitation, food and shelter, with guarantees in adequate staffing and respect of workers’ rights, including decent wages.

Furthermore, we now clearly see how vulnerable the global model of trade and production is, and that there is a lack of properly paid work in global supply chains. This issue, which has already been on the ILO agenda since 2016, must be addressed with new, strong tripartite commitment, ensuring that governments and businesses take responsibility for their supply chains beyond national borders.

The fourth ILO Covid-19 monitor shared figures on young workers. Its shocking statistics are a warning about the emergence of a lost ‘lockdown generation’. Although it is right to draw attention to the very high number of young workers in ‘informal jobs’, the analysis does not sufficiently differentiate between informality and precarity. Our unions everywhere know that even before the crisis many young workers were stuck in all kinds of precarious jobs, including on-call work, temporary contracts, agency work, undeclared employment and bogus self-employment. For too long, the debate in the ILO has been paralyzed when it comes to so-called ‘non-standard forms of employment.’ Now is the time to act and effectively follow up on the issue of the ‘Labour Protection Floor’, which was addressed in the Centenary Declaration and seeks to protect all workers, regardless of their employment status.

An often-forgotten dimension of this crisis is its impact on migrant workers, many of whom work in vital sectors and services that ensure our societies can continue to run properly. But because of the precarious nature of their employment contracts or immigration status, they stay without the protection needed against the virus. Reports worldwide also tell us about migrants being forced to work in unsafe circumstances in jobs and sectors that cannot be considered ‘vital’ at all, or about special ‘shipping’ of labour migrants to meet urgent seasonal needs in agriculture. Often housed in overcrowded, unhygienic communal or worksite accommodation, and transported to and from the workplace packed in small buses, they are an easy target for the coronavirus. For example, there have been major outbreaks in meat production in some countries, which has suddenly brought the issue to the public’s attention. Yet the focus is mostly on how to balance economic interests and public health risks, without even considering migrants’ human rights, including protection of their health and safety. The pandemic has also led to forced repatriation and migrants being stranded at borders, without any support given to them. The ILO must address all this urgently, based on its clear, renewed centenary mandate for a human-centred future of work where labour is not a commodity. 

ACTRAV INFO: Some trade unions want Covid-19 to be recognized as an occupational disease. What is your view on this?

In the centenary declaration adopted last year, we made the first steps towards recognizing the protection of workers’ health and safety as a fundamental right. This is now more relevant than ever: we need greater ambition and commitment to ratify relevant standards, and a higher level of monitoring and enforcement that Occupational safety and health (OSH) standards require. At the same time, we have to give a timely follow-up to the recommendations of the SRM (Standards review mechanism), pointing to the need to fill important gaps in the ILO’s body of OSH instruments. This crisis has clearly shown the need to protect workers against the impact of viruses. So, the priority must be to include on the ILO Conference agenda a draft convention on the protection of workers against biological hazards. But already today, steps can and must be taken at national and international levels to recognize Covid-19 as an occupational disease, ensuring that workers enjoy proper protection of their health, job and income.

ACTRAV INFO: What are the lessons to be drawn from the rise in teleworking and where are the gaps in protection and regulations if teleworking is going to be more widely practised in the future?

Lockdown policies everywhere have had a huge, ever-growing impact on the use of new technology in work practices like teleworking. This has exposed the general lack of a regulatory framework, leading to new risks and lack of protection in health and safety, excessive working hours and precarious working conditions, made worse by the increased use of platforms as intermediaries. As we can expect this development to stay and even expand further, the need for ILO action in this area – as already mentioned in the Centenary Declaration – is clear.

ACTRAV INFO: Finally, how can we enhance the role of the ILO and the multilateral system to mitigate the impact of Covid-19?

Recently, many people have rightfully spoken about the ILO’s central role in the multilateral system. The world at large will be in dire need of leadership in social and economic affairs, a role that the ILO must be take up with convincing authority. The ILO can only play this role if there is a sense of urgency on all sides, with agreement that there can be no going back to ‘business as usual’ but that there needs to be a joint commitment to a future that is more sustainable in social, economic and environmental terms.

This is the moment to remind everyone that social justice and the fight against inequalities must be a top priority, with a central role for governments in tackling the employment crisis and its fallout: starvation and social unrest. This issue is an accident waiting to happen, with millions of workers in the formal and informal economy losing their jobs and millions of SMEs going out of business. This may not be so far from how the world was in around 1919, when governments, businesses and unions deeply understood that only with social justice and social dialogue as guiding principles could there be proper recovery from the vast destruction of World War I. In the preamble to the ILO’s constitution in 1919, the following was declared loud and clear: “…. conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperiled, and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required.”

In the Philadelphia Declaration, as confirmed last year in the Centenary Declaration, the ILO is called upon to ensure policy coherence in the multilateral system. This means examining and considering all international economic and financial policies and measures in light of the fundamental objective of achieving social justice. This is no small task in a world facing growing challenges to multilateralism. But taking into account the wide, tripartite support for this key message in the Centenary Declaration, the ILO must play a pivotal role in guiding its constituents and the wider world through the Covid-19 crisis towards a fairer, more sustainable future of work.

Unions worldwide are calling for a new social contract. This is the moment to show the world that social dialogue and tripartism are essential to recovering from a crisis as devastating as Covid-19. It would be great if our tripartite cooperation at ILO level showed the way forward, placing the ILO at the heart of recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic with a view to achieving a more inclusive, more sustainable development model and to making societies more resilient.