PSI May Day statement: It’s time to move from applause to action

On May Day, we celebrate both public service workers who in the face of Covid-19 have proved to be more essential than ever, and all those who serve our communities and build the real economy. It is from this fertile ground that the post-pandemic economy must flourish, with workers’ rights at its core, not from corporate greed or financial speculation

On this May Day 2021, we want to stress that reaffirming the trade union movement commitment to labour rights and the defence of jobs risks to be simply rhetoric if we do not tackle the root causes of the injustice that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

One year into the pandemic and we are back to business as usual. A public health emergency becomes a private profit opportunity for Big Pharma. One health worker dying every 30 minutes becomes just a number in the narrative that depicts them as heroes. Governments who had promised to fight for more tax transparency to collect funds to rebuild public services now turn a blind eye and conspire behind our backs to reduce our wages and work.

It’s time for us to call on the labour movement and our allies to have a radical agenda

When the pandemic started, for a brief moment, we felt we might be before a lifetime opportunity for humankind as a whole – and maybe we still are. But after 3 million deaths and with more than 250 million jobs lost last year, what we see, at least for now, is quite the opposite.

The pandemic exacerbated inequality and made it much more visible. It also exposed to the naked eye the dominance of the Global North in economic and policy-making processes and how that is used to support corporate interests particularly to the detriment of developing countries.

The already existing fissure between the North and the Global South has now become an open fracture. Almost 40% of all vaccine doses worldwide have been administered in 27 wealthy countries for the first, or 1 in 4 people, whereas for the latter the ratio dramatically drops to 1 in 500 people.

It seems that epidemiologists’ warnings that “no one is safe until everyone is safe” and that we have less than a year before mutations render current vaccines ineffective are not enough to both counter the corporate lust for profits and to make rich governments change their minds about the TRIPS waiver.

Big Pharma argues that removing waivers will dampen the motivation for innovation, but surprise, surprise, the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine research was with money from taxpayers. A finding that makes this even more scandalous is the fact that the total paid by AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson in dividends and stock buybacks to their shareholders in the past 12 months would have been enough to vaccinate 1,3 billion people, equal to the population of Africa.

We must keep reminding people that it was public services that kept them safe and supported the economy

All that said, there are still those out there who insist that we are all in the same storm… – when we all know some are facing it inside yachts and others in rubber dinghies.

But history has not been written yet.

Many old myths, carefully established and promoted, are cracking: that global value chains are efficient and flexible; that the private sector is always better; that public services can be safely privatised; that spending cannot be raised for social measures and many more. There is now an opportunity to create a new coherent narrative that galvanises broad support for our vision.

It’s time for us to be bold and vocal.

It’s time for us to call on the labour movement and our allies to have a radical agenda.

We can’t let those who brought us here take us back to the place where the current crisis has its roots. We must make it clear once and for all that rebuilding the old system will not work. That those who caused the crisis cannot bring the solution. Now, more than ever, we need a fundamental change, with re-empowered public services as the key driver of our recovery.

We cannot allow Covid to be used as a pretence to erode workers right and conditions and undermine trade union rights – like in India where a draconian ordinance under the guise of facilitating economic activities has eliminated, with one blow, 38 labour laws for a period of 1000 days.

We must keep reminding people that it was public services and public servants that kept them safe and supported the economy.

With the pandemic, the wealthy and privileged reconsidered what they value: family, health, education, stability and how much they rely on marginalised workers and public services to provide these. But “the applause” has not been translated into better salaries and working conditions – and we must keep on fighting for that to become a reality.

Let us not commit the same mistake twice: showing indulgence towards capital will be a culpable compromise

It’s time for us to reimagine a role for a progressive, redistributive state that places human rights and protecting the environment at its centre. To ensure that governments take back the tools to empower the state and public services in the pursuit of development.

It’s time for us to fight for more tax transparency so we can finally reclaim the billions flowing into offshore bank accounts and use this funding to rebuild our public services. We can’t afford to lose 34 million nurses' salaries to tax abuse every year. Even less so when there is still a shortfall of 6 million nurses globally, according to the WHO State of the World’s Nursing 2020.

It’s time for us to put pressure on the EU to lead the G20 in supporting a TRIPS waiver so we can speed up vaccinations and avoid the risks of more endless lockdowns, rising public backlash, mutant variations and needless deaths.

It’s time to recognise the many frontline jobs that have kept our communities functioning and are predominantly held by women: care work, health work, cleaning, and childcare – workers who are too often undervalued, underpaid and precarious and are often subject to demands to work for free, and denied formal employment rights.

In short, it’s time for us, public service workers, to make the links to other fights and explain how the changes we need are not unique to the pandemic: that solving climate change, inequality and unemployment all require investments in Quality Public Services, redistribution of wealth, workers’ rights, and a stronger and better democracy.

Let us not commit the same mistake twice: after the global financial crisis of 2008, we stood and watched the global business and financial community seize the opportunity to make the 2030 Financing for Development Agenda another source of their profits. Acknowledging the role of social partners cannot mean sharing the purpose and the objectives of the big corporates. Showing indulgence towards capital will be a culpable compromise. We need to stand with our people and claim for structural change immediately.

The future is now... or it won’t be.