The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of unions giving workers a collective voice in the workplace, and the urgent need to reform our laws to arrest the continued abuse of labour rights by the employers.
During the Covid-19 crisis that is in its ninth month, workers, especially in the Education and Health sectors, have been pushing for enhanced safety measures and additional pay, but with very little success.
Employers, the largest being county governments, have not been quite prompt in providing these pandemic-specific benefits to their employees. Benefits such as personal protective equipment, face masks, thermo guns, sanitisers and fresh water have not been readily available.
It is now emerging that a badly broken system governing Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) is eroding unions and workers’ power more broadly, contributing to the suffering during the pandemic and the extreme economic inequality exacerbated by the pandemic.
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For healthcare workers, the call to duty as the country’s frontline personnel in the fight against the fast-spreading coronavirus is akin to suicide. Almost each day, health workers, including medical specialists, are losing the battle to the virus. It is indeed, scaring to the workers and their families.
For months now, the medics have been agitating for a safe working environment, medical insurance and the allowances, besides other accompanying pandemic-specific benefits. Healthcare workers have made huge sacrifices putting their lives and those of their families on the line to deliver services to the public under extremely difficult working conditions.
So far, the country has lost more than 30 healthcare workers. This is worrisome, and quite unbearable as majority of the victims are leaving behind young families.
The teaching fraternity is facing an almost a similar situation; over 40 teachers, 15 of them principals, have succumbed to Covid-19 since March 2020 when the disease was declared a pandemic. The deaths of teachers and other school personnel are on the rise as the country braces for reopening of schools in January, 2021.
The death of presents a grim picture in the teaching service, especially considering that schools have not fully reopened for all leaners. This means, teachers could easily be overwhelmed by the Covid-19 situation if the national government fails to prepare schools adequately for resumption of learning, and ensuring that coronavirus protocols are enforced to the letter.
Most of the Covid-19 deaths, according to available data were as a result of pre-existing conditions; about 100,000 teachers may fall in the high-risk age bracket (55 years and above) – most of them are head of institutions.
The death rate, going by the situation on the ground, points to the urgency to make schools safe ahead of the reopening. This means schools need adequate and prompt funding to fully comply with WHO Covid-19 protocols when learning resumes.
The Ministry of Education in liaison with county governments should take cautionary measures in preparing learning institutions for the reopening. If health protocols cannot be guaranteed, then schools should not reopen.
Despite efforts by unions in the past to push for policy reforms in the labour sector with a view to preparing workers to deal with eventualities in a crisis like the one we are in, the calls were not heeded by the government and respective employers. Thus, we entered the Covid-19 period with a weak system of labour protection.
As a result, working people, particularly low-wage workers such as teachers and healthcare personnel have borne the brunt of the pandemic.
While providing essential services, these cadres of workers have been forced to perform duties without protective gear. Moreover, many of them have no access to paid sick leave and work injury benefits. It is worth noting that a worker who is injured or dies in the course of duty should be compensated as per the provisions of the Work Injury Benefits Act.
And whenever they raise their concerns on how they are oppressed, underpaid and subjected to poor working environment, which is a serious threat to their health and safety, they are threatened with disciplinary action, including summary dismissals.
The emerging scenes as manifested in bad policies, now require policymakers to move with speed to enact reforms that promote workers’ collective bargaining power.
There are a range of practical policy reforms that should be a priority such as enforcing total respect for implementing CBAs, obeying Labour Relations Act, the Constitution and any other applicable law, including international conventions, treaties and protocols.
These reforms, however, should be built on existing legal frameworks and structures of worker power, and could be put in place while we take on the large task of considering new structures that will promote workers’ collective power and bargaining.
The reforms in the labour relations must be responsive to the lessons we have learned from the challenges workers are facing during the pandemic.
One of the main lessons is the need to strengthen the power of workers’ collective voice in the workplace.
Teachers and healthcare workers have been able to act collectively through their unions, but they have not been successful enough to secure the enhanced measures recommended by WHO, additional premium pay, and other pandemic-specific benefits. This must be addressed.
-Mr Sossion is a nominated MP and Secretary General of Knut