Newsletter : Trade Unions and the new normal in the world of work (Vol 2 )


This is the second issue of ITUC-Africa’s Special Edition Newsletter on COVID-19. As in the first issue, the focus once again is on individual African country responses to the crisis and the trade union role thereof. We also provide some information on effects on migrant and domestic workers as well as gender violence that has taken place during this period.

The rising figures on infections suggest that the pandemic has not yet reached its peak in Africa. Since 30th April, 2020, when the 1st issue of this Newsletter came out, the recorded cases of COVID-19 across Africa has risen by over 200 per cent from 37,402 confirmed cases to 135,373. The number of recoveries has also increased from 12,248 to 56,401 while the death rate has more than doubled from 1,598 to some 3,923.


We recall that when the coronavirus initially entered Africa, many African governments and the African Union responded urgently with drastic measures involving restrictions and lockdowns. They appear to have done so by taking into account the appropriate lessons from the successes and shortfalls of countries which had responded earlier to the virus in Asia, Europe and the Americas.

So far, the measures implemented to contain the spread and treat those who got infected in Africa seem to have worked. Africans on the continent have not experienced the heavy number of deaths that some, including the WHO, predicted. On the other hand, people of African descent in the diaspora in the USA, Brazil and Europe appear to have suffered heavily in disproportionate terms to their numbers in those locations. The impact of the coronavirus on livelihoods of the majority of African peoples has, however, been devastating. The scale of economic disruptions and social distress have been staggering. As the virus continues to spread, even more livelihoods are threatened.

Lessons from the national responses

In the national responses to the crisis of COVID-19 across the world a number of important lessons have emerged for those who care to learn. The first major lesson is that as countries closed their borders, and in some cases restricted exports of essential products, people across the world were suddenly thrown the challenge of catering for their essential needs. Thus, while we appeared to be facing the same storm, countries and peoples around the world were in different boats coping with it. Closed borders meant cuts in food supplies for some and the shortage of essential medical supplies for others.

A second lesson was that as rich countries dug into their reserves to support emergency measures for fighting the coronavirus, Africa and other poor countries around the world could not do the same. Most African states and developing countries of the world had to run to the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and some industrialized countries to seek debt relief, grants and concessional loans to be able to address the heavy fiscal demands that COVID-19 has imposed on their economies.

A third lesson from COVID-19 has been lack of in-country preparedness for emergencies. This unpreparedness is reflected in and exacerbated by, the fragility and weakness of health systems and infrastructure across Africa, poor sanitation, tenuous water and electricity supply systems, the urban overcrowding, the near absence of social protection, the huge informality and massive numbers of the unemployed. These conditions made it especially difficult for countries to implement the restrictions and lockdowns that were considered essential for containing the virus and preventing it from spreading uncontrollably.

Strikingly also, COVID-19 laid bare the deep inequities embedded in our economic and social lives on the continent. On one hand, Africa’s upper and middle classes could either stay home on their savings or work from home in response to lockdown or stay home restrictions implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19. On the other hand, the majority of workers and their families with meagre or no savings were threatened by poverty and starvation. Many lost their jobs and incomes as well as livelihoods. Workers in the informal economy lacking sufficient savings and social safety nets and who live from day to day were hardest hit. Many such workers faced destitution and had to cope with insufficient supplies and handouts in order to cope with the drastic measures of containment. Again, African migrant workers, particularly domestic workers in the Middle East, agricultural and domestic workers in Italy and elsewhere in Europe as well as others in Asia, especially China, have suffered abuses and discrimination during this crisis.

Another critical lesson is the clarity that has been provided on who really are frontline workers as well as essential workers and service providers. As restrictions and lockdowns got imposed, those who clearly emerged as the frontline workers were the healthcare and medical professionals as well as scientists who had to take care of those infected and deal with conditions relating directly to the threat posed by the new coronavirus. The essential workers were those whose work became necessary for minimal survival and the ability of nations to meet the existential threat that faced them and their populations. These were the caregivers, food producers and distributors, water and other utility workers, producers of health and medical products, cleaners and other sanitary workers, retailers, transporters, security personnel, media workers and policy makers. During the grim period in the last few months when most parts of the world virtually had to close down to contain the spread of the virus, the essential workers turned out to be key in supporting the heroes and heroines in the frontline of fighting the coronavirus and its threat to wipe out populations.

Africa and its resilience

Notwithstanding the poor state of preparedness in which the pandemic found us, many African governments and their people appear to have demonstrated considerable resilience in combatting COVID-19. On the part of trade unions, a good number of them have responded robustly to defend and protect workers. This has especially been with regards to promoting occupational safety and health at work, including securing personal protective equipment and materials for workers. Unions have also been active in advocating for and instituting measures to mitigate the impacts of the crisis on workers and their families.

As we approach the third month since the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 a global pandemic, the world appears to be gradually moving towards relaxing the measures that were initially introduced to contain the coronavirus and prevent its spread. The necessity to balance public health needs with economic production and social reproduction is pushing countries to lift restrictions even though it is clear COVID-19 is still around and continues to pose a threat to populations.

New Normal

The lifting of restrictions and the return to work when the coronavirus is still present clearly means that the world cannot simply return to the old way of doing things. The world is simply confronted with the situation of a new normal. Life and work must go on side by side with the coronavirus. Knowledge of the virus, however, grows and we learn better by the day how to fight it and live on.

We need to reflect intensely on the lessons leant in the last few months. In particular, COVID-19 has exposed our socio-economic weaknesses in Africa and has impacted on workers and their families in the most negative manner. That should in turn raise the need for us to work to address the consequent challenges -
 to achieve food security and self reliance in the provision of essential goods like primary medical supplies;
 to pursue social protection for all;
 to commit attention to employment creation and provision of living incomes; and above all
 to institutionalize social dialogue and inclusion as the means for pursuing these goals.

As the world begins to open up and to return to work, African trade unions are reminded that there are already existing frameworks of the African Union (AU) as well as international instruments and labour standards that can be used effectively to advance the rights and interests of African workers. The AU Agenda 2063: The Africa we want and the recently adopted African Free Trade Continental Area (AfCFTA), provide realistic frames for African countries to work together. This has been reinforced since COVID-19 by the African Center for Disease Control, which seems to have done well in coordinating African responses to the global pandemic. African trade unions must do their bit in pushing for the realization of the African agenda for regional cooperation and integration.

At national level, as countries prepare to relax restrictions and open up, trade unions must unite at home and demand social dialogue with employers and governments to discuss the conditions and measures for going back to work. These measures must be in conformity with international labour standards. They can ensure that as our countries cope further with COVID-19 and the devastation it has wreaked on economies and livelihoods, we begin to take the steps towards establishing a new social contract between our states and the people.

In this connection, social dialogue must seek to establish clear principles for recovery and reconstruction from the crisis and seek to pursue policies and enact measures that create and protect jobs, incomes and workers’ rights. Such dialogue can also frame and provide information on clear and transparent guidelines on funding for supporting businesses and workers. Unions will do well to ensure that social dialogue also provides the avenue for workers to engage in collective bargaining about their terms and conditions of service and for informal economy workers to secure representation in decision making on issues that affect them.

At the workplace itself, full use must be made of occupational safety and health (OSH) committees. Such committees should be empowered to discuss with employers core principles of safety and health at work. They should also be used to undertake risk assessments at work and to decide measures of risk mitigation and prevention as well as protective measures and equipment.

Furthermore, to enhance safety in the world of work, unions can press for and contribute to the creation of information hubs or centers where workers can get or feed relevant information on what is happening within their workplaces or communities.

Finally, as emphasized by the ILO, the world of work can benefit from joint training sessions by unions and employers on provisions of OSH, COVID-19 transmission and risk covering the following topics:
 How COVID-19 is transmitted at the workplace and in the community
 Safety and health mitigation measures including physical distancing
 Information, signage and personal protective materials
 Hygiene and disinfection
 Emergency procedures.

Recent ILO Recommendation 202 on Social Protection Floors, Recommendation 204 on Formalizing the Informal Economy and Recommendation 205 on Peace and Resilience, are all useful sources of reference to support union effort in contributing to how to make the new normal in the world of work beneficial to workers and their countries.
The domestication of these instruments and their use can also help the recovery and reconstruction of our countries following the crisis of COVID-19.

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