The COVID-19 crisis marks an era of transformation for trade unions

Workers’ rights are at the forefront of the recovery and should be recognized as essential to the wellbeing of society – pandemic or not.

News | 11 October 2021
by Vera Guseva, Workers’ Activities Specialist, ILO Caribbean

With the Caribbean facing significant and ongoing employment impacts as a result of the pandemic, the participation of trade unions has become critical to achieving a more equal and inclusive human-centered recovery.

From tripartite and bipartite social dialogue to bilateral interactions with governments to targeted actions carried out in support of their members and society as whole, they are contributing towards better and more inclusive labour and social agendas during the crisis.

So what are the key issues that workers’ organizations need to prioritize during and after this experience for them to continue to be at the forefront of achieving a more sustainable future of work?

The Second Caribbean Workers’ Forum which I had the pleasure of attending, recently explored this question. The Elma Francois Institute for Research and Debate of the Cipriani College of Labour and Co-operative Studies (CCLCS) hosted the event from 15 to 18 September 2021.

The Forum was held under the title “Re-imagining the New Normal”. It brought together more than 250 trade unionists, community activists, educators and academics from across the Caribbean and the globe to discuss core topics for protecting worker’s rights throughout the crisis and beyond.

Most notably, as outlined by the CCLCS director Dr Andre’ Vincent Henry in his closing remarks, four themes emerged as priorities for trade unions to take forward: (i) poverty, (ii) social security, (iii) social dialogue and (iv) issues arising from COVID-19 measures and their implications for workers and workers’ organizations, including indeed the theme of vaccinations.

I would also add to this list another issue that rose to the top of the agenda: the pandemic has made a huge impact on mental health. It is of the utmost importance to remove related stigmas through education and training. Unions can play a key role in raising workers’ awareness to pay attention to their mental health.

As the ILO employee I was pleased to see that there was a general agreement that social dialogue is still considered a tool of critical importance in all aspects of the development, implementation, monitoring and review of policy responses to crisis situations, such as the COVID-19 crisis. A climate of trust, built through social dialogue and tripartism, is essential for the effective implementation of measures taken in response to the pandemic and its consequences. However, after hearing the experiences of many participants, it was clear that social dialogue - in particular tripartite social dialogue - has not always worked well during the pandemic. There is a need for strengthened respect for, and reliance on, mechanisms of social dialogue. That in its turn requires all the partners to be prepared for it.

The Forum gave us all a lot of food for thought that needs to translate into actions. It came as a very timely platform to discuss solutions beyond economic and political measures and pave a more just and equitable way out of the current crisis and to examine how to shape this new and better normal and achieve an inclusive and sustainable future of work for all.

To build resilient labour markets that respond to the needs of workers, trade unions should be at the table with governments and employers at every step of the process. Their role is key to shaping policies that support and create more and better jobs, and strategies to guarantee income to the population, particularly for those who have the greatest employment difficulties.

COVID-19 is not the first crisis and it will not be the last. Trade unions have shown resilience over the years, and I believe that trade unions have the capacity to continue adapting to changes in the world of work and in society overall. They have to continue playing a central role in building forward better and advancing inclusive human development and active citizenship, as well as in strengthening democracy and promoting social justice.

If you were not among the Forum participants, you can access the recording of the opening and two keynote speeches at the Elma Francois Institute – YouTube channel. I also invite you to read a special issue of Buzz Newsletter dedicated to the event, and check the CCLCS website for the soon-to-be released outcome document.