Lives at stake – rights and responsibilities for a safer workplace

Access to rights and collective representation through unions is vital to tackling the pandemic. Safe workplace measures must be jointly designed and owned by employers and employees. IUF – a union federation bringing together food, farm and hotel workers – is at the forefront of negotiating with governments and multinational corporations.

Throughout the Asia-Pacific region, employers in all sectors have implemented some form of COVID-19 measures in the workplace. In some cases, comprehensive measures were introduced through negotiations with unions, respecting workers' collective bargaining rights. Other workers are still fighting for their voices to be heard. The right to negotiate change is a fundamental right and not to be suspended in an emergency.

Through mutual agreement on changes to reduce the risk of COVID-19, employers and unions ensure safer workplaces and communities. Unions play a vital role in explaining these COVID-19 safety measures to workers, thus ensuring effective implementation. Only when unions are empowered to provide feedback on problems and are included in their resolution, an employer can truly claim that we are "working together" to overcome this pandemic. 


Lack of workers' involvement

The reality is that in most cases COVID-19 policies were implemented unilaterally by employers. No negotiations, no feedback, no mutual understanding of what needs to be done or what needs to be fixed. COVID-19 measures introduced temperature checks, physical distancing, and changed work schedules – but many employers did nothing to involve workers in making it work. And if something isn't working, no one will know until it's too late. 

In some instances, safety measures were introduced to meet local government requirements to keep operating as an essential service. Since government requirements are often changing and even conflicting, workers are confused by the new arrangements and are unfairly penalized. In other cases, it seems as though COVID-19 measures are mostly designed to promote the reputation of the company, boost the brand or avoid reputational damage. The public announcement of working together to overcome COVID-19 is apparently more important than what really happens in the workplace.


Rethinking workers' safety

There are also examples of major transnational companies making public donations while denying wages to workers suspected of being infected with COVID-19, under self-quarantine. At Coca-Cola Philippines, for example, workers suspected of having COVID-19 are self-isolating for 14 days, but are not paid. They must use any annual leave they might have, then the "no work, no pay" rule automatically applies. At the same time, Coca-Cola Philippines gained media attention by announcing that it will donate 150 million Pesos (US$2.95 million) for the fight against COVID-19. 

COVID-19 is not a health emergency that stops at the door to the workplace. COVID-19 is already an occupational disease, and this changes the responsibility of employers and forces us to rethink workers' safety.  According to ILO Standards and COVID-19 from March 27, 2020: "COVID-19 and post-traumatic stress disorder, if contracted through occupational exposure, could be considered as occupational diseases.”

And the report continues: "Workers have the right to remove themselves from a work situation that they have reasonable justification to believe presents an imminent and serious danger to their life or health. When a staff member exercises this right, he or she shall be protected from any undue consequences." This reaffirms the right of workers to refuse to work if they believe that the workplace is unsafe.


Employers' responsibilities

One of the underlying challenges in understanding rights and responsibilities for a safe workplace in the COVID-19 pandemic is the tendency of employers to focus too much on worker behaviour as both the source of the problem and its solution. Unilateral employer responses to COVID-19 are largely based on holding workers responsible for their behaviour. It's all about individual responsibility for personal health and hygiene and following the rules. No doubt, physical distancing, wearing a mask and personal hygiene are important (wash your hands!). But employers are responsible for ensuring that workers' individual efforts are both feasible and effective. Workers must be provided with hand washing facilities, PPE, physical space and the time needed to do all of this. This all depends on each workers' access to the collective right to a safe workplace. Only through access to these rights are workers able to contribute to safety. 

Access to rights and collective representation through unions is vital to tackling the pandemic. It is vital to ensuring collective action and cooperation. It is vital to tackling the post-COVID-19 crisis and recession. It is also vital to ensuring that we are doing this. By ignoring unions and refusing to negotiate, the changes necessary to ensure a safe workplace in this catastrophic pandemic, employers are increasing risk and creating doubt, leaving millions of workers with the obvious question: if we're working together to overcome COVD-19 ... who exactly is "we"?


Dr Hidayat Greenfield is the Asia-Pacific Regional Secretary of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF).

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

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