As countries are relaxing lockdown measures and people are slowly returning to work, questions arise over what the post-COVID-19 world of work will look like, but also whether companies are prepared and able to ensure the safety of their workers in the short term.
To contain the spread of the coronavirus, countries have imposed lockdown measures which have saved thousands of lives but also caused an unprecedented economic slowdown. Thousands had to carry on with their tasks from home, while others simply lost their jobs.
As the rate of confirmed cases falls and other tools to control the epidemic, such as massive tests and tracing, are put in place, countries are relaxing confinement measures. Labour organisations and institutions are warning of the need for companies to prepare. And the challenges are enormous.
For the past few years, researchers, politicians and journalists have been discussing the rapidly changing world of work. Many scenarios have been tabled – from the impact of climate change to the risks and opportunities of artificial intelligence – but a global epidemic impacting almost every sector of the economy was definitely not one of them.
International business summits now seem unthinkable and business trips and meetings will most likely be replaced by video conferencing diplomacy, to which even global leaders are slowly getting used to. But the pandemic can also be an opportunity to promote more flexible forms of work and further develop the digital economy.
Although its socio-economic consequences will be felt for years, the COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a public health emergency. Therefore, and as long as there is no vaccine, ensuring the protection of workers will be key to limit the impact of a possible second wave once lockdown measures are relaxed.
“In the face of an infectious disease outbreak, how we protect our workers now clearly dictates how safe our communities are, and how resilient our businesses will be, as this pandemic evolves,” Guy Ryder, director-general of the International Labour Organisation, said in a recent statement.
Ensuring safety at work will be the only way to protect our citizens while guaranteeing economic survival, Ryder warned.
Workplace safety remains mainly a national competence of EU countries. However, trade unions regret that the European Commission has not sufficiently emphasised its communication regarding health and safety issues of the exit strategy.
“The Commission needs to start by declaring COVID-19 an occupational disease, to ensure workers have the right to real protection, and require all member states to draw up new workplace safety plans,” Luca Visentini, secretary-general of the European Trade Union Confederation, told EURACTIV.
The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has issued guidelines for companies to prepare for the return of workers in the coming weeks, recommending isolation when possible, barriers, sanitising available at all times, properly disinfecting working spaces, carrying personal protective equipment in cases were separation remains impossible, as well as mental health assistance.
But many working spaces are not prepared to guarantee the required measures of contention. Also, let’s not forget that during the entire outbreak, member states have faced shortages of protection equipment, even for the very workers at the front line of the health crisis.
The economic crisis that will follow – and is already being felt – will destroy thousands of jobs so relaunching the economy as soon as possible is key. However, it cannot be done at the expense of workers’ safety. Governments and companies need to start taking measures as the lockdown is relaxed – and they need to do it fast.
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