World Day for Decent Work 2021: With or Without COVID-19, Health and Safety is Fundamental
Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of UNI Global Union
Renewed attention to occupational safety and health has traditionally been triggered by tragedies and technological change.
In 1911, the deaths of 146 garment workers in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a turning point in the history of the U.S. labour movement, prompting unprecedented militancy and helping set modern occupational safety standards.
More than 100 years later, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, which housed five garment factories, killed over 1,100 people and injured more than 2,500, giving way to an International Accord for Health and Safety in the Garment and Textile Industry. This agreement, spearheaded by global unions, is a legally binding model for due diligence in the global supply chain.
In the past 18 months, COVID-19 has been yet another inflection point. It has exacted a human cost and brought about technological change on a scale rarely seen, and like before, unions have responded by demanding — and winning — safer jobs. On the World Day for Decent Work, we are celebrating these victories while recognizing that much more needs to be done.
An estimated 20-to-30 percent of COVID-19 cases have been attributed to workplace exposure — and this number is likely even higher, taking into account that many employers haven’t kept proper infection records. At the peak of the pandemic, it was more dangerous to be a long-term care worker, where at least 7,000 died from workplace exposure, than to work as a lumberjack.
Grocery stores and call centres have been hotspots for infection globally. According to the UK’s Trade Union Congress (TUC) security guards faced some of the highest risks among any occupation in the country to contract COVID-19.
Unions around the world stepped up and elevated their critical role in protecting workers’ health, through negotiating rules to enable social distancing, securing access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and implementing safer staffing ratios. They demanded paid time off for people required to isolate, for those in recovery and for those with side effects from the vaccine.
In France, unions at Amazon brought a lawsuit to stop the crowding that accompanied the escalating pace of work and strain it caused workers. In Italy, the union CGIL organized an Amazon strike for the same reason.
Many non-union workers had no choice but to take things into their own hands. In Colombia, Teleperformance workers walked off the job in protest against crowding and sharing equipment in their call centre.
Many governments were often woefully unprepared or unwilling to attribute any workplace connection to the virus. For example, in the U.S., the AFL-CIO brought an unsuccessful lawsuit demanding that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issue an Emergency Standard and it was not until early 2021 that OSHA issued even “guidance” on the topic.
But in other countries, unions were able to move quickly to gain recognition of COVID-19 as an occupational disease, to enable workers’ access to the sick pay, wage replacement and social benefits needed to withstand the virus’s impacts.
At the same time as unions were coping with COVID-19 on the job, sweeping technological developments, accelerated by the crisis, gave rise to new forms of safety and health challenges.
Amazon’s algorithmic management tools have previously been associated with injury rates which surpassed others in the industry, but the pandemic ushered in newer forms of surveillance enabling the company to squeeze more work from every minute with crushing consequences for Amazon workers everywhere. New tools on the market, including Amazon’s own, now mean that there is “omnipresent, real-time and relentless surveillance that is not confined to the workplace and to working time,” according to UNI’s research.
Surveillance of call centre workers has always been stressful and unions, where present, have negotiated to limit this non-stop oversight. But with many of the call centre workers ordered to work from home during COVID, and very few unions in the picture across the industry, the surveillance only increased. Some customer service workers are monitored, even videoed, on a non-stop basis. They are forced to “log off” for every minute they are not engaged in a call, resulting in high levels of stress and indeed, wage theft.
And lastly, remote working has exacerbated the already blurred line between work and home, creating longer hours for many workers and leading to general exhaustion and burnout. These issues will not recede with COVID-19 but rather will only accelerate without intervention.
On this World Day for Decent Work, it is fitting to call for another wave of attention to occupational safety and health, to address both the new hazards at work and to embed the lessons from this pandemic.
California has already taken a first step through its new warehouse legislation aimed at curbing the worst abuses of Amazon, for example, through ending the practice of punishing workers with a “time off task” designation when they use the bathroom.
At least one court has found that non-stop camera surveillance at home is illegal.
And the “right to disconnect” — legislated and negotiated by unions (and UNI) in the pre-pandemic era, has taken on new importance as remote work becomes a norm for millions of new workers. remote work standards.
But we must go further. Workplace structures should reflect a priority for safety and health. Some countries already require that many workplaces should have trained safety stewards or independently elected safety committees- this should become the norm everywhere. Safety committees are essential tools — they are the eyes and ears on the job to make sure that rules are not just simply words on paper.
The safety risks of new technology must be prioritized and regulated as well. The current safety standards in effect, many of which were adopted nearly 50 years ago, are no longer enough for the current era.
And finally, employers, governments and unions must come together to agree that the ILO should enshrine health and safety as a fundamental right — a right which applies to all countries and workers.
These steps are critical if we aim to move past this pandemic, be better placed to handle the next public health emergency, and step up to the challenges of new technology.
UNI Global Union represents more than 20 million workers from over 150 different countries in the fastest growing service sectors in the world. UNI and our affiliates in all regions are driven by the responsibility to ensure these jobs are decent and workers’ rights are protected, including the right to join a union and collective bargaining.