On Labour Rights in relation to COVID-19

COVID-19: On Workers’ Rights

By: Lee Sweptson,
Blogpost on COVID-19 and workers’ rights by Lee Swepston, Affiliate Professor

We are all aware by now that the global response to the corona virus outbreak is being carried by the front line low-wage workers. They are  often in precarious employment, have few or no benefits, and are generally undervalued by the societies they protect. This means the nurses and doctors and other carers. But, it also means the low paid and often illegal migrant workers who keep food flowing to the population, the cleaners and maintenance people who keep the machines turning. It also means the guy standing outside the grocery store, spraying the handles of grocery carts with disinfectant after each shopper.

We have been fortunate so far that they remain dedicated to their work, even in the face of their exploitation. I will argue here that treating them in a more humane way, with greater respect for their human rights, is not only the right thing to do but may be all that keeps the rest of us safe moving forward – and in preparing for future crises.

For those of us who work in the area of human rights at work it means respect for their human rights, and extending this respect to those who are affected by the crisis.

The whole range of international human rights, and the ways they have been translated into national law, is relevant here. This  particularly means rights applying to workplaces, which for the most part correspond to those adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO). The ILO has adopted many standards over the last 100 years. All are more or less closely focused on what the ILO terms Decent Work.

A New Recommendation

But as it happens, three years ago the ILO adopted a new Recommendation. It is a non-binding form of international standard – focused on what needed to be done to respect these rights in a crisis, whether of man-made or natural origin. Its purpose is also to prepare societies to face such crises. This is the Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience Recommendation, 2017 (No. 205).

I worked on this standard as an outside consultant before the first of its two discussions. When it was adopted in 2017 it became the only document of its kind. (Note: this Recommendation was an adaptation of an instrument adopted at the end of World War II, the Transition from War to Peace Recommendation, which helped the ILO orient its action to assist re-emerging economies.)

The Recommendation deals with a wide range of possible disasters. But, what it provides is perfectly applicable to the present crisis. There are two main focuses concerning workers’ rights. The first is on protecting those affected by the crisis, and enabling them to contribute to a functioning economy and their own livelihoods when the crisis begins to pass.

A Structure Needs To Be In Place

We can state axiomatically that when recovering from an economy-destroying crisis, there has to be a structure for workers and employers, as well as governments, to make the economy work again.

If people are not being paid, if they are treated in discriminatory ways, if they are forced into child labour and forced labour, the emerging economy will be weaker than it might have been, and recovery will be slower. These phenomena are frequent in crises.

Depending on how long the crisis lasts, and the depths of its effects, the seriousness in different countries will vary. We can envisage a temptation, as the crisis comes to an end, to ‘mobilize’ surviving populations to meet the economy’s needs (I.e., forced labour). There may also be a temptation to deny rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining as obstacles to recovery, and to favor parts of the population over others in re-engagement and investment.

Child Labour And Trafficking Can Increase

There may well be, in less economically stable societies, a surge in child labour and in trafficking if many adults have died, as was the case with the HIV/AIDS surge in Southern Africa. These are all violations of fundamental rights as laid down in international law. Beyond the academic ‘violations’ rhetoric, without respect for these rights economies will simply work less well. And, the effects of the crisis will not pass as easily as they should.

The other main aspect is the rights of those on the frontlines, who help and who serve. While we may encounter – and possibly are encountering- an attitude of ‘We can worry about this unimportant stuff later’, it requires only a little more thought and care to ensure that workers protecting the rest of us are being paid. And, that they are not being discriminated against or being forced to work, and that they have the kind of personal protective equipment prescribed in most national law and international standards. If they do, the returns will be great. They will work more effectively, with protection for their own situations, and in a way that contributes more to a re-emerging economy and social order.

Time To Rethink

Stepping back a little more, this may give us a chance to rethink some of the priorities that have emerged and strengthened in recent years. Is the ‘gig’ economy a sensible way of organizing employment?

Is there a way of paying essential workers something closer to their ‘social value’? Are illegal, but essential, seasonal migrant workers still to be thought of as criminals, or is there a better mechanism?

Odds are that the corporate society will find ways of forcing the economy back into the molds they are comfortable with, if the corporate world is not irreparably damaged. But, maybe some progress can be made by respecting working peoples’ human rights, and national and international standards.

Best regards,

Lee Swepston, Affiliate Professor

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