Wednesday

21st Feb 2024

Opinion

Covid-19: Low-paid workers risk lives, let's protect them

  • Workers are dying simply because they care for victims or maintain essential services (Photo: Lawrence Sinclair)

Every year, on 28 April, trade unions around the world commemorate International Workers' Memorial Day, remembering the people who have lost their lives at work.

But who could have anticipated the special poignancy this commemoration would achieve in 2020, with workers risking – and sometimes losing - their lives every day?

Read and decide

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  • Per Hilmersson: Ursula von der Leyen's commission must rethink their apathy for occupational health and safety, of which there was no mention in her political guidelines when elected Commission president (Photo: ETUC)

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated how vulnerable our society is to an unseen threat that destroys life and devastates the economic activity our wellbeing depends on.

Workers are dying simply because they care for victims or maintain essential services.

Doctors and nurses, paramedics, social carers and other health staff such as cleaners, porters and ambulance drivers are at the sharp end of this crisis.

In the Netherlands, 8,000 healthcare workers have tested positive, with several in intensive care. Spain has recorded 24,000 infected care workers and Italy 16,950, of whom over 150 have died.

Many other workers are exposed to the virus. Rubbish collectors, teaching staff, care, shop, construction, contact centre, agricultural, transport and delivery workers are among those who have to be present on the job, with an increased risk of spreading as well as catching the virus.

Today we remember healthcare workers and all who have lost their lives through exposure to the coronavirus at work and calls for action to end the mistakes and complacency that have put so many at risk.

This crisis has shown above all the need to invest more in good public healthcare, safe conditions for carers and other frontline workers, but also to ensure the enforcement of adequate occupational safety and health standards for all workers.

Yet health services around Europe have never recovered from the damaging impact of austerity policies.

Austerity cuts to jobs and beds

Following the economic crisis, between 2007 and 2011, public spending on health per person fell by almost 30 percent.

Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Croatia were among the hardest hit, but so also were systems in countries that have suffered most from Covid-19, like Italy and Spain.

European Commission figures show most member states cut sickness benefits after 2008, while funding for health insurance schemes was also cut or frozen.

In France, the number of hospital beds has fallen by 15 percent since 2000, with 22,000 healthcare jobs lost 2015-2017. Belgium saw a cut of 4,000 beds in 2010-2019, while bed numbers in the UK have more than halved over the last 30 years.

It's clear that austerity policies pushed by the European Union weakened public services and welfare systems, leaving them ill prepared for the pandemic we are now experiencing.

Europe's new leadership must learn these lessons and that's why there cannot be economic conditions attached to European support for the countries worst affected by coronavirus in the form of further austerity.

Ursula von der Leyen and her team must surely now also rethink their apathy for occupational health and safety, of which there was no mention in her political guidelines when elected Commission president - and of which is still no mention in the recently-leaked Commission work programme.

The omission was astonishing before the crisis considering there are still 4,000 fatal accidents at work and an astonishing 120,000 people dying of work-related cancer every year.

In light of recent events, it would be grossly negligent to keep turning a blind eye to this matter of life and death.

Yet workplace health and safety is still not given the importance it deserves in the commission's roadmap towards lifting Covid-19 containment measures. The exit strategy needs to have a hazard-based approach, with proper prevention measures put in place before we can return to work.

For a start, COVID-19 must be added to the EU directive on the protection of workers from risks related to exposure to biological agents at work to give workers real legal protection.

And the recommendation on the schedule of occupational diseases should be enlarged to cover all professions exposed to Covid-19 at a higher level than for the general population.

But this crisis shows we need – and workers deserve – a new EU strategy that sets us on a path to zero fatal accidents at work and the elimination of work-related cancer. We also need the commission to ensure existing legislation is enforced in member states at a time when there has been a dramatic drop in workplace inspections in many countries.

All of us in Brussels have been heading out onto our balconies each night to show our appreciation for frontline workers.

It's clear the crisis has totally changed society's outlook on previously undervalued workers like carers and shop workers overwhelmingly performed by working class women. But it will all be for nothing if they continue to be underpaid and under protected.

The crisis has also irrevocably changed the standards of safety we all expect when we leave the house and go to work in the morning, as we will soon start doing again. These changes in attitude must now be turned into action at a European level.

Because, on Workers Memorial Day, trade unions not only remember the dead, but we fight for the living.

Author bio

Per Hilmersson is the deputy general secretary of European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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