M. H. André “Social dialogue is not just a choice, it is an international obligation”

The Lithuanian Trade Union Confederation is happy to present You with a new interview with the Director of the Bureau for Workers’ Activities (ACTRAV) at the International Labour Organization (ILO), Ms Maria Helena André. She talked about the new report “The Global Trend Analysis on the Role of Trade Unions in Times of COVID-19 “, recently published by the ILO, the importance of international solidarity and roles of national trade union confederations. 

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LPSK: What are the main global trends regarding activities/ impacts of trade unions during the pandemic?

Trade unions across the world have rallied to protect workers’ rights and to ensure that workers alone don’t pay the bill for the pandemic.

In some countries, trade unions have been able to negotiate stimulus packages that put workers at the centre of Government assistance. In many countries, trade unions have helped negotiate regulation of dismissals and social security benefits for those who lost their jobs. As a part of these efforts, trade unions in some countries were able to add Covid-19 to the list of occupational diseases.

In addition, most trade unions in Europe carried awareness-raising campaigns, often linked to occupational health and safety. In campaigning, we have registered an increase in the use of online communication tools. The use of online tools has also increased for trade union training programmes, many of which were adapted to the new realities under the COVID-19 pandemic.

Providing legal advice has traditionally been one of the core services trade unions provide to their members. During the pandemic, we have seen an increased demand for legal services, as many workers have faced uncertainties and the importance of work contracts has increased.

Some unions have also established emergency funds for affected workers.

For this year it will be important that trade unions participate in social dialogue on recovery and building back better.

 

LPSK: In your evaluation, is there seen a stronger backlash against trade unions during this pandemic? Could you elaborate on the issue of busting? What would be your recommendations for trade unions facing this problem?

There are big differences from region to region and from country to country.

We have seen several countries where the social dialogue has worked well, and the trade unions play a part in the national Covid-19 strategies and in negotiating for workers. Unfortunately, we have also seen several countries were unions have been ignored, or where unions’ basic rights have been violated.

In the latter case, we believe there are steps the trade unions can take. International solidarity is important and can help put pressure on the Government. Utilization of international contact is one avenue to address the issues.

Trade unions are also invited to share information with international bodies such as the ILO. In the ILO, we have both regular, irregular and informal channels where trade unions can reach us.

When the violation of rights happens in conjuncture with national dialogue, the union should continue to organize and provide services to different categories of workers in order to build a mass movement.

There are some particular reasons for concern in your neighbouring countries and in the region: Your neighbour Belarus has seen workers playing a central role in protests for democracy during the pandemic. From Ukraine, we have reports of serious violations of workers’ rights. Similar reports also came from countries within the European Union, such as Hungary and Poland. In all these areas, trade unions in Lithuania can play a role as solidarity partners for affected unions

 

LPSK: One of the main conclusions of the new report is that social dialogue is one of the crucial elements to overcome the crisis and other great challenges. Even in Europe, which has the best traditions of social dialogue, we see many discrepancies and a lack of quality involvement of social partners. Many other countries in different parts of the world do not have ratified fundamental ILO’s conventions and governments are not obliged to cooperate with trade unions on many issues. What would be your advice on how to enhance this situation and strengthen the social dialogue in the world? In what ways can the ILO impact this issue?

Social dialogue is not just a choice, it is an international obligation for countries that are members of the ILO.

Strong, independent workers’ and employers’ organizations with the technical capacity and the access to relevant information to participate in social dialogue, as well as political will and commitment, are prerequisites for social dialogue.

Therefore, to strengthen social dialogue in the world, we need both to work with Governments to enhance willingness and commitment to social dialogue, and at the same time help build technical capacity of the social partners.

ILO is working on both tracks through technical cooperation project at national and regional levels across the globe. In many countries, we have Decent Work Country Programmes in place, which is a joint programme by workers, employers and governments to reach a set of labour-related goals within a time frame. The programmes help to make the commitment to social dialogue official in a way that can be monitored and evaluated.

 

LPSK: Who, where and how are the most affected by the pandemic? What are the worst dangers here and what kind of lasting impact will face workers because of that?

One of our findings is that women have been more affected than men by Covid-19 disruptions. In general, low paid workers have been hit hardest, and women are over-represented in this category. In addition, women were more likely than men to drop out of the labour market and become inactive for a longer period of time.

Younger workers have also been hit harder than older workers, both in terms of losing jobs and delayed entry into the labour market. 2020 was not a good year to start looking for a job for the first time. The employment loss among youth (15-24 years old) stood at 8.7 per cent, compared to 3.7 per cent for adults.

The worst affected sector has been accommodation and catering services, where employment declined by more than 20 per cent, on average. The drop in tourism and travel has impacted many workers in catering and accommodation services. Retail and manufacturing business has also been hit hard. In contrast, employment in information and communication, and finance and insurance, increased in the second and third quarters of 2020. Marginal increases were also seen in mining, quarrying and utilities.

Many informal economy workers have experienced problems accessing social security or benefits though stimuli packages.

 

LPSK: How national trade union confederations, like the Lithuanian Trade Union Confederation, may help to solve global issues harming workers in different parts of the world? Why global cooperation and solidarity are important to trade unions and the ILO? 

Trade unions must continue to fight for a rule-based international order, also in the sphere of labour. Multinationalism was under threat before Covid-19, and this threat should not increase because of the pandemic.

We have seen that information sharing and cooperation across borders have been very useful for unions to enhance their national strategies.

For example, we have seen some unions report an increase in membership during Covid-19, with North Macedonia and Norway as two examples. In both countries, trade unions were active in providing enhanced legal services. Trade unions showed that they were there for workers in times of uncertainty. I think there is a lesson in there for all of us.

The pandemic has shown how important labour migration is for economies around the globe. Together with other aspects of globalization, it highlights how labour rights and labour market policies need a global dimension. This dimension is captured in ILO’s International Labour Standards, and we need solidarity and workers across the world to safeguard and enhance rights in all countries.

We know that for many years you cooperate and support the independent trade unions movement in Belarus. As a neighbouring country, you understand and experience on the country situation and specific. It would be very important if you continue solidarity work with Belarus and other Eastern Partnership countries. In Lithuania, you have a very particular experience, being a trade union in an authoritarian state planning economic system, but is now part of the European Union. You know the changes that are required in such a transition and the benefits and challenges within. That gives trade union in Lithuania a possibility to play a positive role in collaborating with trade unions in other countries that used to belong to the same system, such as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and South Caucasus countries.

LPSK: Thank you for the conversation!

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