The COVID-19 pandemic has upended millions of lives. Lockdowns, large scale layoffs and community quarantines have fundamentally disrupted trade union work at the global and local levels. This brief study maps out how global union federations in the Asia-Pacific region and their national and local affiliates are responding to the pandemic and how they are using alternative online communication and education tools to continue their union work.
The newly-launched report is based on interviews with nine Asia GUF regional secretaries and one international workers’ organization. It shows how COVID-19 has served as a catalyst for digital transformation of trade unions in Asia and highlights challenges. The report illustrates how, after the initial shock of the pandemic, unions began to use digital technology to communicate, educate and campaign at the local and regional level. The GUFs initially connected with their national affiliates using whatever digital tools available and then gradually began to establish regular communication channels on common platforms through skills training and in some instances providing the hardware to ensure affiliates in all countries can participate.
The research highlights how the digital divide affected unions operating in countries across the Global South where Internet is not always readily available and how this is made worse in rural settings where access to communication an information is often severely limited. The high costs of Internet connections as well as smart phones are a major stumbling block to ensure effective use of digital applications and methods for communication and education within and between unions. Digital literacy also varies from country to country and from one economic sector to another. The need to address the digital divide was stressed upon by all the representatives that took part in the interviews.
All GUFs reported that workers in their various sectors were seriously affected by the pandemic and during this time when solidarity was most needed, social distance also had to be observed. Many employers took advantage of this situation by retrenching and restructuring operations without consultation or consideration of the impact on employees, especially migrant workers who had to choose between being trapped in cities without any means of sustenance or making difficult arrangements to get back home where they could potentially spread the virus. Other employers were slow to implement health and safety protocols and unions had to negotiate for increased protection of their members, especially workers employed in essential services.
The GUFs themselves were seriously affected as all their education, campaign and organisational activities required travel and bringing worker representatives physically together. They had to develop totally new plans with new activities that relied on digital applications and methods. While GUFs indicated that many of the kinds of activities they planned previously would resume as soon as the pandemic subsides, they also acknowledged that there would be an increasing use of digital tools and methods in the future to connect unions, to educate workers and to build regional and global solidarity.
A number of practical recommendations emerged from this research including the need for unions to design their own digital applications to support their recruitment, organising and collective bargaining strategies. These recommendations will be concretised into plans; however, the immediate challenge is to increase the understanding of digital applications and develop the skills at a grassroots level to ensure that no section of workers are left behind.
Text written by Saliem Patel.
The views expressed in this publication are not necessarily those of FES.
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