On the anniversary of the WHO declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic, unions are reflecting on how the virus has transformed the world of work.
This grim milestone is not only a chance to remember what workers have won but mourn what we have lost. It is also a time to assess what is next in the fight to confront challenges created by the crisis.
“By putting the inequalities of our global economy on full display, the pandemic has exposed the need for transformative change,” UNI General Secretary Christy Hoffman said. “In Polish nursing homes, Peruvian supermarkets, Philippine call centres, and in global tech company headquarters, workers around the world are organizing to counterbalance to the growing concentration of corporate power. They are organizing to make sure that a COVID recovery does not recreate the same injustices that caused unimaginable tragedies for millions of working people.”
In 2020, UNI Global Union helped to mobilize unions across the world to demand an overhaul of the hard-hit care sector, to stand up to the corporate abuse of companies like Amazon, and to use collective bargaining to rebalance our economy.
In care, in retail, in post and logistics, and in call centres, UNI has put forward guidelines for safer jobs during the pandemic. In media and sport, UNI has supported union negotiations of detailed return to work protocols in order to secure a safe reopening. In the graphical and finance sectors, it supported affiliates through gathering best practices and social dialogue.
UNI has worked with global employers to set safety standards for their workforces worldwide. Last month, it issued guidance for collective bargaining for remote work, a trend accelerated by the pandemic.
Along with its affiliated unions, UNI has demanded essential rights for essential workers. These frontline employees kept our communities fed, safe, and clean during the first year of the crisis. But they are often underpaid, undervalued, and overlooked.
They include Turkish supermarket workers who organized after being denied personal protective equipment. “We do not feel safe,” one worker told UNI, “but I do not have any other choice but to work.”
They are Ghanaian care workers demanding change. “You need a union, especially now for support,” a midwife said to UNI. “Our jobs have become harder, and we cannot provide the care we need to give while also constantly negotiating with our employer over our conditions. The union is there to help us.”
They are security guards in Nepal calling for their rights to be respected. “During the pandemic, we have stepped up and protected our communities. And now we need respect, dignity, and union rights,” one said.
“Unions have been widely recognized as a force for good during this pandemic. Unions have helped prevent the spread of COVID on the job, fought to maintain the income security of their members and negotiated fair conditions for remote work. We have more recently been a voice for universal, equal access to vaccines,” UNI’s Hoffman said.
There is still a long way to go.
A Polish care worker noted that as she approached the one-year mark of the pandemic, she was exhausted yet happy.
“I discovered in myself a new amount of energy to keep going. I know that if we keep working together, the pandemic will eventually end,” she said.
The pandemic has also stoked a new energy–and urgency—within the union movement too. Across economic sectors and national borders, unions are working together to seize this moment and to push for transformative change. So that when the pandemic ends, together, we will emerge in stronger, more just societies.