Solidarity – and remembering on who we call in times of crisis

Wednesday, 18 March, 2020

Belgium is now one of several countries that are in lockdown to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. This is to ease the burden on our health and care systems. As unions we want to ensure the safest possible working conditions for workers. Personal protective equipment (PPE) but also test-kits for healthcare and support staff, for elderly and home care workers are a priority, but we also need them for workers in urban transport, food chains, prisons, waste collection, childcare etc. They are in the frontline supporting all of us. We have received several reports that such equipment is getting scarce like in Bulgaria and Netherlands and in other countries oxygen has become extremely precious. Unions also report drastic PPE shortages in Kosovo and Serbia.

It is disappointing that the EU is not extending its solidarity to the candidate and neighbourhood countries. EPSU has approached the EU institutions to stress the need for supportive action and to share what is available. The EU can provide funds to those countries that face financial difficulties in buying PPE and other materials.

Politicians who now stress the need for the internal market to function have missed the underlying issue of neglect of our public health as a common good and that solidarity, not the market, is the operative word. The markets have not made up for the lack of funding for research to prepare for new outbreaks since the SARS and MERS virus outbreaks in 2003 and 2012. It shows how important the precautionary principle is. The measures governments are taking to bring all health care facilities under public control stresses another aspect – health and wellbeing are so vital that profit-making does not belong here. It is really disturbing to read that the UK government is beefing up private health care companies by renting beds rather than confiscating them.

We really have different priorities than guaranteeing the profit margins of those private businesses. It is sickening that the private equity community is looking for opportunities to buy companies. My view: confiscate a sizeable part of the money in those funds and use it to support our health and care services. Introduce a wealth tax so governments can support workers, the poor, the sick…  No public money to companies that do not negotiate with unions, that harm our environment or do not provide transparency on taxes.

Trade unions are part and parcel of finding solutions at the workplace and at sector and national level for all workers who are affected. Many will be in companies that are closing their doors and pay checks will not come through. With the ETUC, we are addressing the European institutions, the Eurozone ministers to get them to activate emergency clauses, to put aside fiscal compact rules and take the measures needed. It is disappointing that a meeting of finance ministers has been postponed twice. Europe’s workers want clear signals – the “whatever it takes” approach.

People need certainty in rapidly evolving situations as the number of cases of infection rise in all European and other countries. Medical staff in particular are doing a great job as I experienced myself when I had to do a check (not a test) in my local hospital, following a recent flight where a fellow passenger tested positive for COVID-19. All OK. I have to applaud the nurses, cleaners, doctors.., and that is what people have started to do across Europe in a massive show of solidarity.

An update on EPSU activities. We have cancelled all meetings until the end of May and have provisionally arranged the EPSU Executive Committee for 10-11 June. All members of EPSU staff are working from home but are keeping in touch through online meetings. We are focusing on mapping the consequences for different sectors and groups of workers and collecting examples of agreements that might assist unions. Where possible we will try to provide support if your employer or government is excluding your union from dialogue and negotiations on workplace measures. Let us know if we can assist. Please also have a look at the PSI campaign Safe Workers Save Lives.

One of the key questions after the crisis will certainly be if we need more coordination of health policy at EU, European and global level and what form that should take. What does solidarity mean in our European and global society and what are the real priorities for people? And that longer term message needs to be addressed along with how we address climate change, that other global emergency that has been pushed to the shadows of public debate. People do go before profits.