Workers must not be asked to pay the price for yet another crisis they did not produce

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Social dialogue and collective bargaining have delivered concrete and positive results in the handling of the COVID-19 crisis, creating tailor-made solutions. This joint approach needs to continue. We must avoid the mistakes of the 2008-09 crisis where collective bargaining and workers’ rights were sacrificed.

The rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic across Europe has led to an unparalleled crisis for industry, the economy and our society. Never has a crisis impacted so many at such a large scale in such a short time. The confinement measures rightfully adopted in most European countries to protect public health have put entire sectors on halt. Workers across Europe have not been able to continue working in healthy and safe conditions. The slowdown and even complete shutdown of production in key sectors have created an unprecedented shock for European industry and its millions of workers as well as their families who are now facing an uncertain future.

In most European countries, short-time working arrangements, temporary or partial unemployment schemes and similar instruments have been implemented to tackle the current COVID-19 crisis. Many of these schemes are the outcome of social partners negotiations. It clearly demonstrates that strong social dialogue and strong collective bargaining at all levels are essential instruments for bridging crises. This is because they deliver tailor-made solutions to address the specific situations faced by workers in their specific workplaces. As a European federation of trade unions in industrial sectors, industriAll Europe has been monitoring the developments in the sectors we represent and we have collected a list of select agreements, negotiated by our affiliates, in our COVID-19 monitor.

It is proclaimed everywhere that we are in this crisis together and that we can only overcome it together. We could not agree more. In fact, we are fully aware that where social dialogue and collective bargaining are strong, robust and appropriate measures have been reached at company, sector and national level to protect workers’ health and to give them economic security while preparing to restart activities. We must continue with this joint approach.

Yet, we witness with great concern how some employers across Europe try to exploit the current vulnerable situation and push for a weakening of workers’ rights and increases in flexibility. Others have simply made workers redundant without even considering negotiating with workers and their trade union representatives. At European level too, we see some employers actively trying to diminish workers’ rights and the European social agenda. Calls for postponing the implementation of the Posted Workers’ Directive are just one example. All in all, this is a worrying reminder of the 2008/2009 crisis where workers were left paying the bill. Workers need to be protected from paying the price for yet another crisis they did not cause.

Clearly, companies need to sustain their business. As trade unions, we rely on healthy companies to continue to offer good-quality jobs, but this cannot come at the expense of workers’ rights. Workers are facing a double threat: they are at risk of losing their jobs and they also risk their health by continuing to work. It is crucial that now and during the upcoming recovery period, social dialogue and collective bargaining can function at their best to ensure that appropriate solutions for both workers and employers are found. Sustaining this joint approach is key to making workplaces safe for restarting economic activities. Social partners, with their intricate knowledge of their sectors and companies, are best placed to issue the necessary health and safety recommendations: from ventilation, to cleaning and protective equipment.

The current emergency shows that collective bargaining has never been more critical to deliver effective and consensual solutions for employers, the economy and society. This has also been the message of our European-wide campaign for collective bargaining ‘Together at Work’ which ran between September 2019 and March 2020. Our campaign was the response of trade unions in Europe’s manufacturing, mining and energy industries, united under industriAll Europe, to the flawed response of European and national institutions to the crisis of 2008-2009. In the aftermath of that crisis, politicians upheld employers’ calls for more flexibility and subsequently undermined workers’ rights. The harmful effects of dismantling collective bargaining systems, especially in countries most hit by the crisis, have been well documented. We saw how increasing flexibility mainly benefited big business and how the profits workers helped generate, ended up in shareholders’ pockets.

We must not repeat the mistakes of the past and we speak on behalf of 7 million industrial workers, when we express our utmost concerns about the highly alarming measures adopted by a number of governments, in response to the COVID-19 crisis. We are deeply concerned that in some countries workers are asked to work substantially more hours, give up on rest periods, and in many cases risk their lives because of working in unhealthy environments. All this while also renouncing a part of their pay and bonuses. We see a huge danger that these changes deemed temporary for now will remain in place after the crisis.

For sure, extraordinary times require extraordinary measures, but it is unacceptable that only public authorities and workers pick up the bill. So far, the strongest support for businesses and workers in response to the COVID-19 crisis has come from public authorities that have implemented subsidised, temporary unemployment schemes. These schemes are financed with taxpayers’ money. When taxpayers are keeping companies afloat it is morally imperative that such support is conditional. Employers should now stop paying dividends to their shareholders and workers that have been dismissed during this crisis must be reinstated.

We remark once again that the value and risks of companies are supported by all of society, while the profits are distributed to only a few. Workers are expected to chip in when things go wrong, but when the situation improves, they are deprived of their fair share. What is more, they are asked to sacrifice even more.

Today, it is clearer than ever that the functioning of our society rests on workers. We are glad to see people clapping for the ones risking their lives at work in order to ensure that the rest of us are healthy and that our essential needs are met. However, workers deserve more than symbolic recognition. Workers need to be compensated for the sacrifices and the hard labour they give for the benefit of society. The recovery from COVID-19 cannot mean a return to business as usual. We need a recovery which includes the implementation of a social agenda. This will only be possible through a full involvement of trade unions in the design of the recovery strategy.

Author:

Luc Triangle, General Secretary of industriAll European Trade Union, the federation of trade unions representing workers across supply chains in manufacturing, mining and energy sectors across Europe. IndustriAll Europe represents 7 million working men and women united within 180 national trade union affiliates in 38 European countries.

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