ILO Policy Brief on COVID-19

Pillar 3: Protecting workers in the workplace

While many people have lost their jobs and income, many others continue to work. Making sure that work can be performed safely is a shared priority.

While many people have lost their jobs and income, many others continue to work. Making sure that work can be performed safely is a shared priority.

Health and social care workers, cleaners, agricultural workers, and many others on the front line of the response to the crisis provide essential services.1 Implementing adequate health and safety measures in these sectors, as well as promoting supportive working environments, is key to helping workers cope in these challenging times.

Others are teleworking from home, sometimes for the first time. Dealing with isolation, participating in and/or managing online teams, maintaining productivity while working remotely, and balancing paid work and unpaid domestic care work (especially with many childcare facilities and schools being closed) can all become very challenging.

The rise in domestic violence that has been observed since the start of the pandemic is also a source of public concern.2

In the absence of social safety nets and adequate income support, many workers in the informal sector, especially in developing countries, have hardly any choice but to continue to work despite restrictions on movement and social interaction.

Protecting workers is more challenging than usual, particularly with regard to workers in non standard forms of employment and in the informal economy. Many such workers, a large majority of whom are women, lack adequate labour and social protection.3 Moreover, many of these workers are young or come from particular groups that face multiple layers of discrimination and stigma at work and in society, such as people with disabilities, indigenous peoples, people living with HIV and migrants.4

Strengthening occupational safety and health, adjusting work arrangements, preventing discrimination and exclusion, and providing access to health care and paid leave (and also to food and social services for the most vulnerable) are all indispensable strands of a coordinated health and social policy response to the crisis.

Strengthen occupational safety and health measures and promote the implementation of public health measures in workplaces

Controlling COVID 19 outbreaks in workplaces plays a crucial role in containing the spread of the virus, thereby protecting all workers and communities, and also having a positive impact on business continuity and employment.5

National workplace policies should strive for fast detection and containment at early stages of transmission, and for mitigation and elimination of the risk of outbreak through coordinated action between the health and labour sectors, with the involvement of the social partners.

Measures should be oriented towards minimizing the spread of the virus in the workplace. They can include adjusting work arrangements (e.g. promoting telework, staggered working hours and breaks) and work environments (e.g. to implement physical distancing), promoting workplace hygiene, providing workers with reliable and accessible information on healthy behaviours, and identifying and managing suspected COVID-19 cases.

Enterprises should be given tailored practical guidance on and assistance with risk management and the introduction of appropriate control and emergency preparedness measures, including measures to prevent new outbreaks.6 The specificities of particular sectors and groups of workers need to be taken into consideration. Particular attention should be paid to workers in front-line emergency services or in direct contact with the public, who are often exposed to a higher risk of contagion, heavy workloads, increased stress and even violence. Special protection measures may include adapted facilities, the free provision of adequate personal protective equipment, and psychological support. The safety and health of those working from home should also be addressed, with especial attention being paid to the effects of isolation and anxiety, ergonomics, the balancing of work and family, and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle.

Lastly, governments, in collaboration with employers’ and workers’ organizations, must look into the critical needs of vulnerable workers, such as those in the informal economy, migrant workers and refugees, for whom it may be difficult to comply with public health guidelines related to physical distancing and hygiene. Measures to protect these workers can include awareness raising on safe work practices, the free provision of personal protective equipment (including soap for handwashing) as needed, access to public health services, and alternative livelihoods.

Workplace emergency preparedness plans designed in response to the present health crisis need to be integrated into occupational safety and health (OSH) management systems. The continuous monitoring of OSH conditions and appropriate risk assessments can ensure that control measures are adapted to the evolving processes, conditions of work and characteristics of the workforce during the contagion period and afterwards. Decisions on control measures should be specific to each workplace and in accordance with the guidelines issued by national and local authorities.7 Employers should also assess violence, harassment and psychosocial risks. Effective preventive action in workplaces requires consultation with workers and workers’ representatives.

Adapt work arrangements

Adjusting work processes and work arrangements through measures such as teleworking reduces the risk of workers contracting and spreading the virus, while enabling them to maintain their jobs and allowing enterprises to remain operational. To be effective, teleworking needs to be grounded in dialogue and cooperation between management and workers.8 This is even more important when teleworking occurs on a full-time basis.

All those who perform work that is compatible with teleworking arrangements – including temporary workers and interns – should be eligible to telework during this crisis. The effective management of teleworkers requires a results-based approach: identifying objectives, tasks and milestones, and monitoring and discussing progress without overly burdensome reporting.

It is essential to provide teleworkers and managers with access to appropriate hardware and software (including dedicated teleworking apps), technical support and training. No less important is the need to ensure a safe work environment, which includes providing accommodation measures for people with disabilities and tackling cyber-bullying and domestic violence.

All parties need to be clear about the results that are expected to be achieved, the conditions of employment, the hours when they are expected to be contactable, and how they should monitor progress and report results. Expectations should be realistic throughout.

Telework is meant to offer workers the flexibility to carry out their work at the times and in the places most convenient for them, while remaining contactable during the normal business hours of the organization. Teleworkers need strategies for effectively managing the boundary between paid work and personal life (e.g. a dedicated workspace, disconnecting from work at specified times).9

Prevent discrimination and exclusion

Discrimination has manifested itself in unique ways during the crisis and exposed the existing cracks in the social fabric. Women, people with disabilities, people living with HIV, indigenous peoples, migrant workers, and those in the informal economy risk being further disadvantaged as a result of the pandemic and its aftermath. Furthermore, the crisis has the potential to exacerbate unacceptable forms of work, such as child labour and forced labour.

To mitigate such risks, it is essential to enhance and enforce laws and policies on equality and non-discrimination in employment,10 supported on the one hand by a strong, multi-faceted advocacy campaign that makes it clear that violence and harassment will not be tolerated, and, on the other, by creating safe ways for victims to seek support without alerting their abusers.

A twin-track approach is required both for the immediate response and for the medium-term recovery. Such an approach involves targeted measures for groups in situations of vulnerability to ensure that these groups are covered by mainstream responses to the crisis, including access to care, benefits and services.

The pandemic has revealed the vital role that care work (both paid and unpaid) and a robust care economy play in maintaining the health and well-being of societies and ensuring resilience in the face of future crises.11 Women are at the epicentre of the response to the crisis, and with the closure of schools and of childcare and other care facilities, many of them have experienced a sharp increase in the amount of time they spend daily on unpaid care work.12 Some countries have put in place innovative care services to allow women who perform essential work to keep working. In the long run, it is necessary to prioritize higher levels of investment in stronger, sustainable and quality care infrastructure and services (also in the health sector) and to enhance working conditions, as care workers are often on temporary or zero-hour contracts.

Indeed, the crisis has laid bare the inequalities in labour and social protection that result from workers’ contractual status. Some workers with temporary or part-time contracts, along with the self-employed and gig workers, do not have the same rights to paid sick leave or unemployment insurance as those with permanent and full-time contracts; nor do they enjoy the same level of protection against occupational hazards. As countries emerge from the crisis, it will be necessary to revisit the existing regulatory frameworks to ensure equal treatment of workers regardless of their contractual status.13

It is equally essential to provide protection during the pandemic to informal economy workers, who typically fall outside the scope of labour law and social protection, while facilitating their transition to formality in the long run. These workers are twice as likely as formal workers to be poor and excluded from income replacement and social protection schemes. Street and market vendors, food preparers, domestic workers and taxi drivers are particularly vulnerable in that respect.14 Gender-sensitive approaches, tailored to these workers’ diverse characteristics and circumstances, are necessary when devising ways of enhancing their access to preventive health measures and health services and securing their livelihoods (e.g. through food delivery and income support). In addition, vulnerable families affected by school closures should be provided with access to low-tech or “no-tech” educational solutions to mitigate the risk of increased child labour.

Preparedness, prevention and control strategies should take into account the situation of migrants and refugees and offer free, anonymous medical testing and referrals. Migrants and refugees should be integrated into risk pooling mechanisms together with nationals to ensure solidarity in social insurance coverage and in the provision of socio-economic support. Cooperation between countries of origin and destination can also help to extend protection to migrant workers across borders – for example, by exchanging information to ensure the smooth repatriation and reintegration of migrant workers or by providing medicines and other types of support to both nationals and migrant workers. Moreover, trade unions in some countries have started to cooperate across borders in order to facilitate the distribution of food to migrant workers.15

Provide access to health for all

An effective health response to the COVID-19 pandemic should prioritize the closing of gaps in social health protection. Nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population lack effective health coverage: they have to resort to regressive out-of-pocket payments in order to access health services or even forgo health care altogether. Leaving the sick without access to quality health care is not only damaging for them and their families, but will also contribute to spreading the virus even more widely. The lack of efficient and effective health protection is compounded by shortages of health personnel: particularly in rural areas and among marginalized groups this means greater dependence on unpaid family care.

In the short term, health coverage needs to be extended to all workers and their families, irrespective of their employment status. Many countries have already adopted measures to close gaps in social health protection by, for example, channelling additional fiscal resources into the health system or improving coordination of the system, with a central role being accorded to public provision.16

However, these efforts need to be sustained, expanded and anchored in a legal and financial framework. To that end, an enabling environment for the enshrinement of health coverage in national law is essential. Equally important is the allocation of sufficient public funding to relevant infrastructures, including staffing.17 Improving working conditions for health workers is another prerequisite for the provision of quality health services, which are essential to reduce the spread of the virus and facilitate a swift recovery.

Expand access to paid sick leave and family leave

Almost 50 per cent of the global labour force have no legal entitlement to sickness benefits. These workers must choose between staying at home when they are sick to protect their own health (and public health) and continuing to work to maintain their jobs and income, thereby placing their own and others’ health at risk.18

Immediate measures to expand access to sickness benefits are therefore urgently needed. In response to the pandemic, some countries have extended the coverage and adequacy of such benefits or adjusted their scope, for example by ensuring coverage in cases of quarantine and self isolation, reducing waiting periods for payments and developing faster delivery mechanisms.19

For sickness benefits to play their part in the prevention of pandemics, collectively financed mechanisms are essential. A solid, equitable and sustainably financed scheme (or set of schemes) needs to be put in place to ensure that hitherto excluded groups that received coverage during the crisis remain covered afterwards. Experience shows that relying exclusively on employer liability is not a viable solution and leads to exclusion, especially of the self-employed.

Paid family leave should also be made widely available to all workers. This is particularly important in the case of those who cannot telework, given that many support structures are closed and that the provision of unpaid care for children and frail elderly persons by family members who may be living apart is hampered by physical distancing measures.

The emergency measures taken during the crisis will need to be transformed in the medium to long term to establish a solid, equitable and sustainably financed scheme. Excluded groups that have been included during the crisis should not subsequently lose their coverage.

1 ILO: COVID-19 and the world of work: Sectoral impact, responses and recommendations, web page [accessed 10 May 2020].
2 A. Taub: A New COVID-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide, in The New York Times, 6 Apr. 2020.
3 ILO: The COVID-19 response: Getting gender equality right for a better future for women at work, ILO policy brief, 11 May, 2020.
4 ILO: Protecting migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, ILO policy brief, 30 Apr. 2020.
5 ILO: In the face of a pandemic: Ensuring safety and health at work (Geneva, 2020). This report was issued on 28 April 2020, World Day for Safety and Health at Work.
6 ILO: Interventions to support enterprises during the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery, ILO brief, 16 Apr. 2020.
7 ILO: In the face of a pandemic: Ensuring Safety and Health at Work (Geneva, 2020).
8 ILO: Keys for effective teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic, news story, 26 Mar. 2020.
9 ILO: Practical guide on teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic for policy-makers and enterprises, forthcoming.
10 ILO: COVID-19 crisis and the informal economy: Immediate responses and policy challenges, ILO policy brief, 5 May 2020.
11 E. Pozzan and U. Cattaneo: Women health workers: Working relentlessly in hospitals and at home, ILO news story, 7 Apr. 2020.
12 ILO: The COVID-19 response: Getting gender equality right for a better future for women at work, ILO policy brief, 11 May, 2020.
13 J. Berg: Precarious workers pushed to the edge by COVID-19, ILO blog post, 20 Mar. 2020.
14 ILO: Contagion or starvation, the dilemma facing informal workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, ILO news story, 7 May 2020.
15 ILO: Protecting migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, ILO policy brief, 30 Apr. 2020.
16 ILO: Social protection responses to the COVID-19 crisis: Country responses and policy considerations, ILO brief, 23 Apr. 2020.
17 ILO: Financing social protection in developing countries, ILO brief, forthcoming.
18 ILO: Sickness benefits during sick leave and quarantine: Country responses and policy considerations in the context of COVID-19, ILO policy brief, 14 May, 2020.
19 ILO: COVID-19 and the world of work: Country policy responses, web page [accessed 10 May 2020].