No one should be scared to do their job, but the rapid spread of COVID-19 has left service employees around the world deeply concerned about their health at work. In airports and other transportation hubs, in shops, in banks, in healthcare centers, and beyond, public facing service workers are on the front lines of the fight against the virus and are often the most at risk.

With infections now approaching 100,000 people in nearly 90 countries, unions are ensuring that employers provide workers accurate information, robust training, adequate equipment, and paid leave in the event of quarantines or illness. 

“The tragic, disruptive consequences of this outbreak are growing daily, but in country after country, unions are stepping up to protect the safety of not only their members but of their communities. They are holding employers accountable to do their part to prevent the spread of this virus,” said Christy Hoffman UNI Global Union General Secretary. “This means adequate protective equipment and proper training as well as ensuring that sick workers can recover physically while not suffering financially.”

The Italian trade union Filcams CIGL, has negotiated time off and flexible working hours from employers such as Zara, H&M and Carrefour. This means that shop workers can look after their children while many schools are shut down.

The union has also secured a commitment from companies to provide disinfectant for stores and allow hand-cleansing during the day, as well as offering gloves and face masks for workers who want to wear them. Employers have also agreed to consider paid leave for workers, in case of absence due to forced closures.

“As soon as the seriousness of coronavirus became apparent, we wanted to react quickly to help our members,” said Marco Beretta, General Secretary at Filcams CIGL Milan. “Store workers are in public-facing jobs making them vulnerable to catching the virus. At the same time, many of our members are parents, and with schools suddenly closed, we wanted to make sure they were able to look after their children in these exceptional circumstances. Our five-point list of demands has been accepted by all the companies where we have members in Lombardy.”

Also in Italy, workers in one of Amazon’s Milan-area fulfilment centres have tested positive for the virus. The unions on the ground, including Fisascat, are closely monitoring the situation to ensure that the company follows the directives of the country’s public health agencies.

Mary Kay Henry, President of SEIU, the largest healthcare union in the United States, staked her union’s position clearly by saying that: “Working people across the country, including people on the front lines of our healthcare system and airport workers, face an increased risk of exposure to illness — people like Delores Prescott, an acute care nurse from Seattle, and Pedro de Moya, a cabin cleaner who sanitizes restrooms, removes trash and wipes surfaces on airplanes in Miami airport. And employers must have contingency plans for their workplaces should working people see their workplaces closed or scaled back if this emergency grows.”

Mr. de Moya is not the only airport worker on edge because of the virus, and several workers have been demanding better training and equipment to do their job safety and thoroughly.

In the UK, unions are calling out the lack of social protections for gig workers, who would not be able to follow the government’s recommendation to “self-quarantine” for 14-days without work if stricken with symptoms. A representative from the GMB said, “If the government is serious about containing the virus it has to take steps to make sure people are able to self-isolate without the added concern of how they will pay their bills.”

Also in the UK, GMB scored a big win for thousands of workers  this week when  private outsourcing company ISS promised full pay for all health workers self-isolating due to Coronavirus.

In South Korea, the Korean Postal Workers Union are distributing protective equipment to their members, for their safety and for the safety of the public at large. The  Korean Health and Medical Union (KHMU) is also urging the government to take more active measures against the outbreak and demanding protections for medical employees.

“As during many other crises, our affiliates are showing the world that unions are here to promote the general welfare, remove fears, dispel myths and achieve immediate action to protect our communities,” said Christy Hoffman General Secretary of UNI Global Union. “This is not a time for panic but a time for action driven by cooperation and concern for safety—not short-term profits.”