It may not have been thought of as an antidote to the coronavirus but collective bargaining is protecting workers’ health and security against its ravages.
From the frontline workers in supermarkets and nursing homes to those facing the consequences of workplace closures, everyone has a part to play in containing the Covid-19 pandemic. Where workers have a voice through collective bargaining and social dialogue, we are increasingly seeing, emergency measures are more swiftly implemented.
This crisis makes clear to all that our societies are only as safe as their most vulnerable members. Finally frontline service workers are being defined as what they are—essential. Longer-term, we have to ask ourselves if their pay and conditions reflect the importance of the tasks they carry out. Right now, we need to step up resources to ensure these workers are given the tools to stay safe, protect the vulnerable and keep our societies running.
Infrastructure and equipment
A big part of the solution lies in the workplace. From installing breath-protection plexiglass panes at check-out tills to providing face masks and hand sanitiser, improvements in infrastructure and equipment are vital. UNI Europa recently examined two examples of supermarket unions working together with retail businesses to ramp up such measures.
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In Hungary, workers at the Spar food chain negotiated equipment improvements as well as job security and improved access to self-isolation. While not perfect, the crisis measures are still among the best of any supermarket in the country, catering for the large number of vulnerably-aged workers and making food replenishment safer for consumers. Building on the mutual trust established between unions and management during previous bargaining rounds, not only were special measures quickly agreed but these are also set to benefit from being implemented in a more engaged way.
In Austria, workers successfully negotiated similarly improved conditions and even better equipment and infrastructural measures. Yet the key difference was not in the specific measures but in their reach. Rather than these applying only to a single chain, the Austrian unions secured application to all supermarkets in the country, safeguarding food workers and consumers nationwide.
The key difference is whether workers have the right to bargain collectively over decisions which affect them, their families and their communities. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s government has made it harder for workers to bargain collectively sector-wide. The result is that only one in five working people there are covered by collective-bargaining agreements. In contrast, 98 per cent of workers are covered in nieghbouring Austria, allowing for these emergency workplace measures to be brought in for all, not just a minority.
Working when sick
For too long, governments were encouraging people to isolate without providing them with the means to do so. Supermarket attendants, cleaners and nursing-home workers are some of our frontline heroes and heroines, working day and night to fend off this killer virus. Yet many of them are precarious, low-paid workers who find themselves forced to continue working even when sick.
Securing workers’ incomes has thus been key to providing real access, promptly, to self-isolation. Denmark was first off the mark, unveiling a series of measures negotiated among the unions, employers and government. The latter would cover sick pay and almost the full portion of employees’ salaries whose work activity was suspended by the lockdown. Since then, unions have been instrumental in obtaining similar measures in 18 European countries.
Also core to an effective response has been job security, with part-coverage of salary by the state rendered conditional on workers being kept on the company payroll. The effect is that people know immediately that they’ll have enough to live on but also, once the crisis has eased, that they’ll have a job to go back to. What’s more, this will facilitate a recovery of the economy as, rather than a chaotic race for new employment, people will walk straight back into their jobs.
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The Covid-19 trajectory of the countries which acted quickest is the most hopeful. Giving workers more of a say over policy-making, rather than imposing unilateral measures, is the sort of ‘race to the top’ Europe needs and there are promising signs these experiences are being taken on board at European level.
The European Commission’s SURE short-time work scheme is the way to go. It is encouraging to see that the Eurogroup of euro-area finance ministers has followed suit and taken steps needed to make it operational. Rightly so: a social Europe means ensuring all member states have the financial means to guarantee incomes and job security.
Frontline workers are risking their health and that of their families. We need to mobilise all possible resources to keep them safe. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, however, while 29 per cent of countries worldwide are providing bailout funds for businesses only 23 per cent are providing extended sick pay for all or some workers. This relates to a longer-term unravelling of sick pay: since 2008 spending on sickness benefits has been reduced in 22 EU member states.
While we know that unions and employers working together are making a difference, some governments are refusing to learn these lessons. Most recently, we’ve seen the Hungarian government—and its Polish and Czech counterparts—move to curtail social dialogue and collective bargaining. While the worst of the measures were mitigated by swift trade union action, it is worrying to see this knee-jerk reaction towards authoritarianism.
In times of crisis, we need decision-making that unwaveringly puts human lives first. Evidence shows that this only truly happens when workers have a real say. We already knew that building inclusive economies through collective bargaining and social dialogue resulted in shared prosperity, but now we are seeing that it builds resilience to shocks too.
In a world of heightened volatility, these arrangements will increasingly be prerequisites for tackling the challenges of the future. Europe must learn from this experience and move forward through collective bargaining.