Keywords : Newsletters Climate Change And Environment Extending Social Protection Youth Work - Organising And Workers Empowerment

This is the third Issue of ITUC-Africa’s Special Newsletter on African responses to the COVID-19 crisis and the role of trade unions. This time round, we focus on the remaining 12 countries that were not covered by our two previous Issues. We look once again at the country responses in terms of restrictive measures to contain the spread of the virus as well as the policies that were enacted to address their economic and social consequences. Subject to the ready availability of information, we also look at the role of trade unions in responding to the crisis.

It needs mentioning, however, that most of the countries under coverage in this Issue have trade unions that are challenged. Some of them operate in an environment that do not favor trade union existence and activities. Out of the 12 countries, Namibia, Guinea and eSwatini stand out as countries with vibrant unions. In eSwatini, however, the conditions of the absolute monarchy relating to freedom of association and expression constrain trade union activism and performance.


As is evident from the roll out of measures in the countries covered, governments are now moving away from the lockdown and restrictions of the early days of the pandemic. Faced with COVID-19 which persists and the prospects of further impoverishment if they continue to impose restrictions, governments are beginning to relax measures and to allow economic activities to resume, albeit at lower levels.

Enormous difficulties of livelihood continue to face millions of workers who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. There are also those whose livelihoods as informal economy operators or migrants are undermined or threatened because of the overall slowdown in economic activities. For those also in the hospitality and tourism sectors as well as personal services, the lifting of restrictions does not fully restore economic activity in their domain because the persistence of the COVID-19 and the continuing need to cut down on social interactions and to observe physical distancing.

For workers who have to go back to work in spite of the raging COVID-19, the need to stay safe and healthy at the workplace remains the biggest challenge. In the first instance, we recall the many health care workers (HCWs) across the continent who have lost their lives from COVID-19 in the line of duty. Trade unions must take the appropriate lessons from the ultimate sacrifice made by these heroines and heroes of the the working class to insist on the provision of personal protective equipment (PPEs) for all workers during this period.

Again, the demands of responding to the pandemic further exposed the weakness of an African development model that is dependent on external sources and forces for basic needs like food and medical supplies. The crisis also showed how vulnerable the majority of Africa’s people are in terms of poor housing, inadequate water provision and poor sanitation, weak health infrastructure and provision as well as low level of social protection, including income protection.

Strategic Framework for responding to the crisis

Since the crisis, the ILO has developed a strategic framework for responding to the crisis. The framework provides a welcome guide to addressing the interests of workers and its main pillars are:
• Stimulating the economy and employment;
• Supporting enterprises, jobs and incomes;
• Protecting workers in the work place; and
• Relying on social dialogue for solutions.

The importance of social dialogue

Trade unions have a role to play in actualizing all the four elements contained in the ILO’s response framework. Relying on social dialogue for solutions provides the basis for pursuing the realization of the other elements of the strategic response in a manner that can actually benefit workers. Whether it is towards stimulating the economy and employment, supporting enterprises, jobs and incomes, or protecting workers in the workplace, trade unions must strive to engage fully through social dialogue to canvass measures and positions that advance workers’ interests.

For stimulating the economy and employment, trade unions can use social dialogue to pursue options for promoting public investments in public services like water, sanitation, health, education and digital infrastructure. These have clearly emerged as essential issues to address as we seek to overcome the huge deficits in social development that have become sharply evident since the onset of the crisis.

Again, trade unions can use social dialogue to champion policies and measures that support enterprises as well as to secure jobs and incomes. Particular support needs to be provided to micro, small and medium enterprises and to help the transition from informal to formal economies.

Protecting Workers in the workplace

Above all, trade unions have need and the opportunity to use social dialogue for protecting workers in the workplace. As workplaces open up for the resumption of work, unions must draw important lessons from the impact of COVID-19 on workers and do everything to make the world of work wholesome for workers including ensuring their safety and health at the workplace.
Unions must take the first lesson of protecting workers in the workplace from the tragic experience of the many health care workers who have perished from the raging coronavirus because they did not have adequate PPEs.

First and foremost, unions must insist on the provision of adequate PPEs for HCWs who face the threat of contracting the virus on a daily basis from the very environment in which they work. Indeed, for such workers, unions are encouraged to advocate for special incentives.

Secondly, the rising infections in Africa of COVID-19 and the spread of the disease in communities heightens the exposure to risk of infection to all persons who operate in public. This makes it essential for unions to endeavor to engage with employers on how to make the workplaces wholesome and safe for all workers as they return to work.

This requires unions to pursue a number of measures which include:
• Negotiating for paid sick leave for workers who are sick;
• organising the workplace and work in a manner that allows the necessary social and physical distancing for relatively safe social interaction;
• providing PPEs for all workers at the cost of the enterprise;
• managing information about COVID-19 in a manner that provides the appropriate knowledge and progressively contributes to workers’ and community understanding of the disease;
• developing policies for addressing the issues of workers with special needs like pregnant workers and workers with disability;
• contributing to the development of an environment in which workers who have recovered from being infected by the coronavirus are not stigmatized and discriminated against.

Finally, in going back to work fully under conditions that for now can be described as the ‘new normal’ , unions will do well to also canvas working from home (WFH) wherever it is possible and desirable to do so. This also demands helping to develop protocols and conditions for working from home that promotes productivity and enhances the value of work to the worker.

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