COVID 19 crisis + millions of workers who are already vulnerable = devastating consequences

Anna Triponel

November 2, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis is deteriorating workers’ most basic human rights in every region across the globe. The International Labour Organization (ILO) points to the ways in which the pandemic is (1) undermining the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining amidst ‘states of emergency’; (2) increasing the prevalence of forced labour, especially for already vulnerable workers like migrants; (3) increasing child labour as families struggle to earn income and as schools close down; and (4) exacerbating workplace discrimination, especially for ethnic minorities, immigrants and women.

Key takeaways

The ILO’s Issue paper on COVID-19 and fundamental principles and rights at work focuses on the likely impacts of COVID-19 on the four fundamental principles and rights at work. These impacts are summarised below:

  1. Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining: “The COVID-19 crisis is in many places making the realization of rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining more difficult, both in law and practice, which in turn hampers the development of responses to the crisis rooted in social consensus.” For example, the European Trade Union Confederation “notes a broader tendency, not just in Europe, of some governments ‘abusing emergency powers/ decrees to fast-track legislative amendments curtailing trade union rights that were previously proposed and successfully blocked due to trade union opposition.’”
  2. Elimination of forced or compulsory labour: “The COVID-19 crisis is increasing the pool of workers vulnerable to forced labour and worsening work situations that are already exploitative.” The pandemic has made more people socio-economically vulnerable, driving them to seek out any work, even situations of forced or bonded labour. Migrant workers are especially at risk because their employment is based on immigration status, which is especially precarious if they are laid-off or restricted from traveling back home.
  3. Abolition of child labour: “The COVID-19 crisis is fuelling fears of a rise in child labour, as education is interrupted or no longer affordable, and hard-hit families must send their children to work as a survival strategy.” Socioeconomic vulnerability and increased poverty caused or exacerbated by COVID-19 are pushing more children to work, including in the worst forms of child labour such as “domestic servitude, commercial sexual exploitation, and hazardous work in mining and agriculture [and] a range of sweatshop activities.”
  4. Elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation: “The COVID-19 crisis is amplifying the effects of pervasive discrimination in the world of work, whether on grounds of race, colour, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction, social origin, HIV status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or other.” According to the ILO, “Public panic and fear around COVID-19 contagion has generated its own wave of stigma, xenophobia, racism and intolerance,” and is slowing progress towards closing gender pay gaps and labour force participation rates.

The way forward

The ILO proposes a four-pillar framework to tackle these issues. While these actions are largely directed at governments and policymakers, they have relevance for employers as well:

Read the full report here: ILO, Issue paper on COVID-19 and fundamental principles and rights at work (November 2020)

“For the millions of workers already in vulnerable situations, the COVID-19 crisis can have devastating consequences: their fundamental rights at work are under threat, pushing them and their families towards greater insecurity. Safeguarding and extending fundamental principles and rights at work will therefore be critical to the success of both immediate and longer-term responses to the crisis in the world of work.”                          

ILO, Issue paper on COVID-19 and fundamental principles and rights at work (November 2020)

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