Workers’ role in pandemic fight | Daily News


Workers’ role in pandemic fight

Today, the workers’ organisations of the world usually parade and demonstrate their unity as various classes of wage-earners in their struggles to protect their livelihoods. From the plantations of the hills to urban industry and services workers and, to rural craft and agri-workers in the provinces, women and men of the working class usually spend May Day celebrating their vital role as the cogs in today’s vast global economic machine.

Today, however, the streets will not echo to the tread of colourful trade union parades, chanted slogans and the exhortations of May Day rally speakers.

The giant global economic machine has partially ground to a halt as humanity takes cover and fights off the deadly, livelihood-crippling COVID-19 pandemic. The UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) is warning that nearly half the world’s population of daily wage earners have lost their livelihood due to the economic shutdown and suspension of most public human activity.

International Workers’ Day, which falls today, is more popularly known as ‘May Day’. The term ‘May Day’ originally described the ancient European spring season festival. In 1904, the first internationally networked workers’ organisations of Europe adopted May 1 as the day to celebrate the social role and importance of wage-labour. This workers’ network, called the ‘Second International’, chose May 1 in order to commemorate the massacre by police firing of trade union leaders who had been agitating on labour issues in Chicago, USA, in early May, 1886.

Subsequently, the ILO, which was formed in 1919 in Geneva in the aftermath of the First World War, adopted this date as the International Labour Day and it is observed as such today by most United Nations Member States. It is a holiday in many countries, though the US, where May Day had its origins, now celebrates Labour Day in September. The ILO performs a key role in bringing together the three pillars of the world economy: labour (organised working class), capital (employers and business leadership) and Government.

The deadliness of the COVID-19 is deceptively not immediately tangible. Although the fatalities are swift and many, they are still relatively less in proportion to the numbers of infected people. But to maintain even a semblance of control over the rapid spread of the contagion, human society has had to halt public activity as much as possible. In a globalised capitalist economy where speed of production and delivery is fundamental to market success, this has meant a crippling of economic life across the world.

The ILO, which has been monitoring worker conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic warns in its latest global assessment that: “The continued sharp decline in working hours globally due to the COVID-19 outbreak means that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy – that is nearly half of the global workforce – stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed.”

Some economic theorists may debate the merits of economic shutdowns as opposed to market profitability and sustainability, pointing out that the actual death toll seems to be low in proportion to the numbers infected. But Governments and societies the world over have been largely unanimous in quick action to ‘lockdown’ as the first step in a series of measures meant to restrict the contagion and reduce the long term impact on economic life.

The point is that the contagion is incredibly swift in spread, thereby burdening health systems with a massive human attrition that is occurring suddenly and immediately rather than being spread out over time. The worst affected countries are experiencing infection spreads in the thousands almost daily and fatalities in the hundreds daily. In the space of four months since its outbreak, almost all of the world’s 190+ countries have been hit by the pandemic with Antarctica being the only unaffected continent.

Therefore, we have the economic shutdown. Already, merchandise exports in the first part of this year have shown a serious decline. As we mark May Day this year, the struggles of the working class have a new frontline, one that must bring together all socio-economic classes, labour and capital, against the common enemy that is the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fortunately, some of the big corporates have already begun action to reorganise their labour cohorts to ensure employee continuity to some degree. But many small and medium scale enterprises will inevitably shed much of their labour if they have to survive in the post-COVID market.

The Government, national political leaderships and labour leaderships now face the challenge of catering to the needs of the working classes - i.e. wage-earners – whose livelihoods are being drastically emasculated. Trade unions will need to strategize to ensure safety nets for retrenched labour on the one hand while devising innovative parallel income-earning avenues for the newly unemployed and under-employed. Above all, given the need for smooth and rapid economic recovery, there is the over-riding need to ensure industrial peace. The social sensitivity of the business leadership, too, must come in to play.

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