Tackling the Covid-19 pandemic at the workplace

Sharan Burrow
6 min readJun 30, 2020

From the very first cases of infection in Wuhan, the Covid-19 pandemic has been about workplace health and safety.

The virus has shone a spotlight on the inadequate protection of many working people against risks at work, on the way that insecurity of employment and low wages heighten exposures to risk, and on the systemic failures of occupational health and safety law, nationally and multilaterally.

As the latest outbreaks in meatpacking plants and abattoirs in North-Rhine Westphalia in Germany, in Anglesey in the United Kingdom, in Brazil and the USA demonstrate, workplaces are one of the main places where people become infected.

While lockdowns and isolation have sharply reduced infection in the community, working people — especially women, migrants and ethnic minorities — have, throughout, faced increased exposure to the coronavirus. Working-age people are less likely to die when they contract Covid-19 than pensioners, but workers are also among the vulnerable if they have pre-existing medical conditions, and they face considerably higher exposure over an average seven- or eight-hour working day. Women who contract Covid-19 are less likely to die than men, but they are over-represented in frontline and often low paid jobs that expose workers to the virus, and in precarious jobs where protections are weak or non-existent.

Frontline workers

Health workers and care workers, from highly paid medical professionals to cleaners, have had to continue working throughout the lockdowns, often with hopelessly inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment. Transport workers like cab drivers, bus and train drivers, and staff on ocean-going cruise ships have suffered high levels of exposure and shown higher than average infection and fatality rates. Retail staff and delivery drivers have also kept working.

And now that countries are emerging from lockdown, hospitality workers, in pubs, restaurants and hotels, and teachers and other education workers are likely to face high rates of exposure.

In many cases around the world, but especially in developing countries, workers with insecure employment contracts, the low paid, and those in the informal economy have faced the choice between starving and continuing to work despite being infected, or exposed to higher risks of infection. Those without access to decent sick pay, unable to isolate when they develop symptoms, are at higher risk.

Epidemiological evidence suggests that people of working age are most likely to contract infectious diseases of all kinds due to workplace exposure, whereas those who have retired are most at risk in care facilities or as customers in the hospitality sector.

Covid-19 is no different, but most of the effort and the resources have been devoted to community transmission. Massive — and massively expensive — furlough schemes have (rightly) been directed at keeping people away from work, but that means that comparatively less attention had been devoted to making workplaces safer. The necessary public health measures such as lockdowns are relatively blunt instruments. Re-opening workplaces is far more complicated and requires the specific application of occupational health and safety rules and procedures.

Safety management

Unions around the world have been demanding adequate amounts and appropriate types of personal protective equipment (PPE) — masks, gowns, gloves and so on. Workers without access to unions because their greedy employers have prevented unionisation drives — such as Amazon — have mounted unofficial strikes to demand greater protection.

But PPE is often only a substitute for proper health and safety systems — avoiding the hazard altogether should always be the top priority, reducing the risk through social distancing is a second-best, mitigating exposure through PPE the last line of defence. The ITUC has issued its own advice setting out what unions should have a right to expect from their governments.

Return to work should — as the WHO has urged — be done only after a proper risk assessment. That risk assessment should involve workers and their union representatives, as the ILO’s guidance has made clear; and it should always consider *not* returning to work as a key way to avoid the hazard. Workers must have the right to remove themselves from a situation of serious and imminent danger, without adverse consequences such as loss of pay or disciplinary action.

Decades of health and safety austerity

All this comes after several decades of reduced health and safety for working people. Work was made safer in the 60s and 70s, with the spread from developed to developing economies of safety committees bringing managers, unions and professionals together, or union-nominated safety representatives. Labour inspectorates were developed, often allying with unions to enforce safety laws. Developing workers’ compensation schemes for occupationally acquired diseases provided stronger economic incentives for reporting and prevention, as well as providing decent incomes for those affected.

Since the early 80s, though, deregulation and then austerity have gutted health and safety inspectorates, made laws ineffective, and allowed risks to proliferate. Unions have seen their power to insist on safer workplaces reduced, and job insecurity and unemployment has weakened workers’ ability to refuse unsafe work.

So when Covid-19 struck, it wasn’t just health services that were underfunded and stretched: workplaces and inspectorates were ill-prepared even in developed countries. As the epicentre of the pandemic moves south towards the less developed countries, the situation will be even worse.

Global solutions

Many of the solutions to the problems working people face in returning to or continuing their work while the pandemic still rages go far beyond traditional health and safety measures.

We need universal social protection to ensure people don’t face the choice of putting food on the table or bringing home a potentially fatal disease. The ITUC has called for an initial injection of $37 billion over five years through a Global Fund for Social Protection, providing paid sick leave and access to adequate healthcare.

We need a universal labour guarantee that gives rights to platform workers and formalises the status of informal workers, giving their employers responsibilities among other things to protect them from hazards at work.

And we need mandatory due diligence in global supply chains so that health and safety in Bangladesh’s garment factories, Thailand’s fishing fleet and Kenya’s tea plantations are a shared duty for local employers but also multinational brands and retailers. Those supply chains should also ensure that people have access to PPE and when they are available, to medicines and vaccines.

Multilateral action on health at work

But we also need — in this area as in so many others — to boost the capability of the multilateral system.

The WHO, which has performed well in terms of community medicine, needs to follow the lead of the ILO, of workers and their unions, and occupational health professionals when it comes to workplace diseases.

The ILO itself needs to increase the resources for health and safety at work, stressing, in particular, the social dialogue element that its Director-General has described as one of four pillars for action against Covid-19 (along with protecting working people, another of the four pillars.)

We need the long-overdue ILO Convention on Biological Hazards, on ice for nearly twenty years, and now an urgent priority, because Covid-19 will not be the last global pandemic. And the ILO should be clear that Covid-19 is an occupational disease under Recommendation 194, encouraging national governments to require reporting, prevention and, if necessary, compensation.

And above all, the ILO needs to make occupational health and safety a fundamental right within the ILO system, on a par with freedom from forced or child labour. That would have an enormous impact on the treatment of what has often been the Cinderella element of the protection of workers’ rights in national legislation, enforcement and trade.

Beating Covid-19 will require an enormous effort from everyone. It cannot be defeated if not beaten in the workplace.

Co- authored with Owen Tudor, ITUC Deputy Secretary



Sharan Burrow

General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Representing the world's working people.