(7 April 2021) The impact of the pandemic is very different with Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan having experienced grave problems while Uzbekistan and especially Tajikistan did not have the same challenges. Excess mortality is high in Russia and the government has increased spending on health and including for salaries. To cope with an increase in the number of patients new hospitals are built in Kazakhstan. But the economic consequences of the pandemic have hit all the countries hard. Vaccinations are underway although unevenly as Kyrgyzstan is lagging behind. The countries are using the Russian and Chinese vaccines. According to data from the unions over 1000 health workers died in Russia and nearly 120 in Kazakhstan. Unions are promoting vaccination and leaders like of our affiliate in Kazakhstan are regularly in the news. All unions have undertaken vast efforts to support their members including through buying personal protective equipment in the first period of the pandemic and later provided food and other assistance for example. The ILO supported the social partners and government in Tajikistan how to address the pandemic and the World Bank provided funding for the vaccines. Across the countries unions are seeking the recognition of COVID19 as an occupational disease and additional pay for workers that have been in the frontline including in municipal services and in the energy sector. Some unions noted new efforts to undermine public services through social entrepreneurs while others reported agreement with the employers not to reduce the number of workers during the pandemic.
The EPSU General Secretary introduced the priorities of our work. Our health and care and our social protection systems need to be built. Across Europe unions demand investment and funding for our public services. The impact of austerity through years of underfunding has now played out with a lack of sufficient staff and resources. Unions say no to austerity. Unions are playing a major role in keeping workers safe and demanding from the employer safe workplaces. Unions have negotiated additional pay for health workers doing such a great job. Often benefits have not been extended to other groups of health and care workers and unions are demanding higher wages for all. We do have concerns over new labour legislation which could undermine independent unions in Kyrgyzstan. The country went through much turmoil after the elections last year. And while the health union in Kazakhstan is recognised as an effective operator for workers the government keeps its pressure on the union limiting its potential. The General Secretary also drew attention to the Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable development of the WHO European region. It will look at the lessons that can be learned. It will make recommendations on investments and reforms to lift health and social care to a priority for governments.
Other issues discussed included
- The work of the Women and Gender Equality Committee. Traditionally 8 March is celebrated in the countries. It was used to highlight the work of women on the frontline of the pandemic and how many are fighting to survive. The focus was on equal pay and better conditions on the work place. Like elsewhere an increase in the violence against women was seen. Unions have blocked proposals that would entrench the situation of women like one that would give women a 4 day week (with less pay) at a moment the gender pay gap is still 20 or even 30%
- The youth network has been active and discussion took place on how to improve the outreach of the network in the constituency. A seminar for young workers representatives is being organised.
- Members of the Finance Committee were confirmed
- The start of the preparations for the PSI Congress.
- Situation in Belarus and the role of the health union.
Richard Pond joined the meeting to discuss telework or remote work, which came to the fore with the pandemic. Before it had not been such a big issue in the constituency. He referred to EU level agreements, the guidelines on telework of the European Occupational Safety and Health Agency. There might be a permanent shift to home work and this can give rise to many questions including with which other workers to compare. Several affiliates like in Spain and Belgium have now concluded agreements on this while unions in Italy and France are dealing with the right to disconnect and ensuring that working time rules apply. Olga Zhankevic introduced the agreement reached in Russia. Telework was hardly regulated but since the 1 January there is a new law. The unions were consulted. Also in Uzbekistan there are industry wide and workplace level agreements in the public sector. In the private sector so such agreements were reached. The unions secured that when a worker can not work remotely, and the office / work place is shut down salaries are paid in full. Richard mentioned a number of projects forthcoming including training and with PSI a compendium on collective bargaining practices dealing with telework. He further informed that the Factsheets on the right to strike will cover the countries of the constituency making it one of the most comprehensive overviews of the right to strike.
The EPSU General Secretary provided an update of the preparation of the action day 23 June, Public Service Day. Other days unions celebrate that are forthcoming included 22 March (World Water Day) 7 April (Global Health Day), 28 April (Workers Memorial Day) and 1 May. The online constituency meeting took place 16 March.
Extensive country reports are available here.