Beyond health workers, millions more need better conditions to beat Covid-19

As the world is swept by the COVID19 global health crisis, millions of public service workers - mostly local and regional government employees – are on the front line of the emergency, putting their lives at risk to ensure our safety.

Health workers (doctors, nurses, midwives, laboratory technicians, janitors, hospital canteen workers and many more) bear the brunt of this terrible fight and are exposed to contamination, work exhaustion and psychological harm.

We must also acknowledge the many other public service professionals who relentlessly continue to deliver essential public services to ensure that hospitals are functional and have the supplies they need to care for patients, and that people can keep safe.

The continued service provided by water and energy workers makes it possible for people to wash, drink and cook; heat homes, work remotely and keep in touch with their loved ones while in confinement. Italian electricity workers have a legal obligation to restore service in case of blackout in a private household or in a neighbourhood. In these challenging times, personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, plexiglas helmets and disposable suits are scarce and have to be used sparingly. Some workers can no longer use public transport to go to their work destinations and their employer must provide vehicles.

ACEA electricity workers, Rome, Italy. Photo: Rassegna Sindacale
ACEA electricity workers, Rome, Italy. Photo: Rassegna Sindacale

Waste and sanitation workers – already at great risk of contamination and disease in normal times – expose themselves even further at this time to ensure that contaminated medical and household refuse are safely disposed of, while disinfecting public space. Under the current circumstances, municipalities need to take further OSH measures and provide appropriate PPE for waste workers, including adapting pick-up frequency and routes to reduce contamination risks. In Hamilton (Canada), CUPE5167 local and the local authorities agreed to ensure that waste workers have access to wipes, sanitizer and additional PPE, as well as to washrooms along their routes, a major concern after the closure of businesses and restaurants. The city also suspended leaf and yard waste collection to ensure social distancing rules, and is urging residents to put tissues in closed garbage bags instead of recycling bins to limit workers’ exposure.

As the death toll dramatically rises, municipal funeral services have the difficult task of burying or incinerating the dead with dignity and accompanying families through the grief, while keeping the public safe from contagion. The Mayor of Madrid has temporarily suspended collection and sealing services for COVID victims by the municipal company, due to the lack of PPE for staff, and has launched an urgent call for support to central government. While it continues to ensure corpse disposal, the municipal company now relies on private companies for collection and sealing. In the most severely hit countries, including Italy, France and Switzerland, the army is now mobilised to support burials.

Firefighters, ambulance crew and emergency responders are often the first to handle sick patients in critical condition and transfer them to hospitals. Although they are used to handling emergencies, fires and disasters, their own PPE equipment is not necessarily adapted to protect them from pandemics.

Social service, home care and disability care services play an essential role supporting the most vulnerable in these trying times, breaking the isolation of the elderly, tackling the specific challenges of the disabled in the wake of the pandemic. In Italy, one of the countries with the highest elderly population in the world, the about 200,000 social and home care services staff are not enough, largely lack PPE, and are on the brink of exhaustion. Italian unions urge public authorities to up staff levels and ensure the highest level of safety to protect service users and workers alike. Australian public service unions are calling their central and local governments to act consistently to ensure adequate staff level, PPE and training to retain disability service workers, who are already in short supply.

As millions of workers are losing their jobs and risk forced evictions for rent arrears, public housing service workers are called to help, on top of the regular support they must provide to families, the homeless and other people in precarious situations including migrants and refugees. The damage caused by unregulated real estate speculation, the sale of public housing and cuts to housing services over the past years is becoming fully apparent in this crisis. Just in England, the number of families living in temporary accommodation has increased by almost a third in the last five years, reaching 62,280 families 5,400 of those with shared facilities. The situation is particularly critical here; if COVID-19 is to be effectively beaten everyone must be in a condition to properly comply with the confinement rules.

Municipal police in Avellaneda, great Buenos Aires area, Argentine.
Municipal police in Avellaneda, great Buenos Aires area, Argentine.

As countries progressively pass confinement orders, municipal police control public spaces to ensure that social distancing rules are enforced by educating the public and dispersing groups. During their interventions, municipal police officers can find themselves in close contact with individuals who do not always respect the social distancing rules.

The shortage of life-saving medical equipment such as masks, gloves and intensive care respiratory devises and many other essential goods makes the work of airport employees key, as they ensure safe and timely delivery of essential traded goods and to further contain contagion.

While vital public service workers are on the front line of the fight against COVID 19 and schools are closed, many childcare and crèche workers are called to ensure essential minimum service for their colleagues.

The economic shutdown is putting many workers out of employment and enterprises on the brink of bankruptcy. In this dramatic context, as emergency income support laws are passed, public administration workers in services such as unemployment and social benefits are working around the clock.

Prisons are a high-risk environment for the spread of the virus and prison service workers are under threat. Countries such as Spain, Iran and the US have released low-risk prisoners to reduce the risk of transmission or have temporarily suspended short-term detentions for minor infractions. In a prison in Wales, currently 75 officers are thought to be either off work sick or self-isolating.

PSI urges national, local and regional government authorities to listen to public service workers and their unions as they express their legitimate needs.

Just like in the case of health workers, these frontline public service workers, on whom largely depends the outcome of the raging battle against COVID-19 and the survival of the economy and of civilization as we know it, are experiencing dramatic staff shortages, lack of resources and of PPE to properly do their jobs while keeping the public, themselves and their families safe.

Under these extremely challenging circumstances, listening to local public services workers and engaging with their unions is more than ever fundamental to beat the COVID 19 pandemic.

PSI urges national, local and regional government authorities to listen to public service workers and their unions as they express their legitimate needs to guarantee continued, effective, and safe services for all at a time of unprecedented crisis.

PSI calls on them to refer to the comprehensive PSI Concept note on the COVID 19 response and especially to:

  1. Engage in dialogue with public service unions to find shared solutions to ensure the highest standards of safety for public service workers and users, while maintaining vital service continuation

    Public service employers must actively involve public services trade unions in the decision-making process to determine necessary steps to safeguard workplace safety and health and provide transparent and timely information to workers and their unions about the number and location of infections and the most up-to-date information about the disease.

    The COVID crisis must not be used by employers to:

    • bring in non-union, temporary workers to pressure workers exercising their right of retreat from work in case of imminent danger and under unsafe conditions;

    • bypass ongoing collective bargaining negotiations and labour relations frameworks due to the exceptional circumstances;

    • relax labour law and wave the application of collective agreements.

  2. Uphold the highest standards of occupational health and safety (OSH) specific to each public service profession and provide adequate PPE to all

    National, regional and local authorities must ensure in a consistent and coherent manner that public service frontline workers are guaranteed the highest standards of occupational health and safety and the personal protective equipment (PPE) that suits the specific risks incurred by their professions.

    Notably, public service employers must:

    • respect all obligations detailed in ILO Conventions 155, 187 and 161 as well as ILO Recommendations 194, 197 and 171 and Protocol to Convention 155 and strictly enforce the implementation of these by all employers;

    • adopt and implement the reviewed ILO guidelines on decent work in public emergency services as national policy, to adequately protect workers on the front lines of the coronavirus response;

    • provide free medical testing for workers, and treatment for infected workers;

    • provide comprehensive personal protective equipment (PPE) to any worker who may come into contact with infected people or anyone that has come from an infected area and provide adequate PPE to all workers working in public or highly frequented areas;

    • respect the right of workers to choose not to work when their safety and health may be at risk or when workers or their families have underlying health issues that could be aggravated by the virus.

    Professionals who are particularly exposed including waste workers, firefighters and emergency workers, funeral service workers, as well as municipal police – it must be ensured that they have access to:

    • adequate, sanitized premises, changing rooms and washrooms that allow the respect of safe social distancing;

    • the regular disinfection of essential work equipment;

    • the possibility to leave their uniforms on premises and access to a professional laundry service so that these are properly washed and/or disposed of.

  3. Ensure adequate service staffing levels, training and retention

    While vital services experience a dramatic shortage of staff and resources and need hiring, training and decent working conditions to guarantee continued service.

  4. Release or redeploy non-vital public service staff

    Many workers in non-essential public service areas are not allowed to confine and required to report for work exposing themselves, the public and their families to contamination. Under such circumstances, only vital staffing levels should be maintained and enhanced, whereas in case of serious and imminent threat of contagion workers must have the option to withdraw from work, in accordance with ILO OSH conventions. Redeployment should be consensual and come with adequate training, PPE and conditions.

  5. Address work exhaustion and psychosocial risks

    As they serve under exceptional conditions, many frontline public service professionals are on the brink of burnout and work exhaustion, experiencing unbearable levels of stress and anxiety, not least for their own families and for their lives.

    Employers must ensure mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) and training for all workers on the emergent medical and sociological issues related to the outbreak. This dimension should be fully taken into account and effectively addressed as governments lay out their contingency plans and financial packages to beat the pandemic.

  6. Enact legislation and policy which ensure that all workers, including informal sector workers, casual or sub-contracted workers, and platform economy workers are paid sick leave allowances which they can live on during any period of quarantine after potential exposure, exposure with no diagnosis or positive diagnostic test, or when their workplaces or means of livelihood are temporarily closed down to curtail transmission of the infection

    Listening to the voice of local public service workers and engaging in constructive dialogue with their unions is more than ever crucial to effectively tackle and stop COVID-19.