Speech by UITBB General Secretary Michalis Papanikolaou to CWFI India
Global Responses to Covid-19 and the Role of the Class-Based Trade Union Movement
By Michalis Papanikolaou,
UITBB General Secretary
Allow me to begin by thanking you for providing me the opportunity to address you and discuss with you, during such a difficult time for the workers around the world. Let me first of all convey on behalf of all the members of UITBB, our warm, militant greetings and sense of international solidarity.
None of us can deny the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all countries around the world and has created unheard of difficult circumstances, which people and governments are dealing with for the first time. Especially for our class, the working class, things are even worse, when people do not have the proper working and living conditions, the proper means for protection, health and safety measures in the workplace and so on. As workers are on the frontline doing their duties, they are the people most affected by the pandemic. When employers do not take the proper measures to ensure the wellbeing of their employees, then we need to do something about it.
National responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have been varied, and have included containment measures such as lockdowns, quarantines, and curfews. As of 27 August 2020, more than 24.2 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported in more than 188 countries and territories, resulting in more than 828,000 deaths. More than 15.8 million people have recovered from the virus. The most affected countries in terms of confirmed cases are the United States, Brazil, India, Russia, South Africa, Peru, Mexico, Chile, the United Kingdom and Iran.
Let us now see how each region reacted, with some examples of the most important countries from each region, based on information we received from our members around the world, and some research of our own. All countries, others to a lesser and others to a higher extent, were forced to take measures following extreme pressure by society, trade unions and other organised groups. These measures are not permanent but will soon end. The measures were:
- Lockdowns and curfews were imposed, especially in the early days of the pandemic, in March, April and May. These lockdowns are gradually being lifted.
- Educational institutions have closed and, where possible, classes were organised online. The discussion as to how schools will reopen in September, and whether students will have to wear a mask, are still ongoing.
- Travel restrictions were imposed. Most countries closed their borders to international travel, also imposing restrictions on domestic travel. Many countries created categories of travellers according to COVID-19 cases in each country, with quarantine measures, COVID-19 tests and so on. Tourism and of course the workers in this sector were heavily affected since most hotels, restaurants and so on remained closed.
- Many countries have announced financial packages that aimed to help both the workers and the employers/businesses. Many countries paid a percentage of people’s wages (in those businesses that closed) so that they can stay home and look after the children, whose schools were closed. Many countries also reduced taxes such as VAT, suspended loan payments and offered other financial aid.
- Social programs such as price freezes and support of the socially more vulnerable groups such as the elderly, migrant workers, workers with children and so on were also announced by different countries.
Of course, it needs to be said that some of the plans were more efficient than others, while in some cases the workers did not get anything. The general understanding is that the governments were too little, too late. As a result, unemployment rose exponentially, pays were cut, benefits were reduced or cut altogether and people were impoverished.
At this stage I would like to be more specific, and mention what each region did, with the example of a few important countries in each continent:
In the EU, there are so far 2 million cases of COVID-19 and 181 thousand deaths. The European Union has created a massive joint recovery package to cushion the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. To tackle the deepest recession in its history, the EU will set up a €750-billion coronavirus fund to be handed out as loans and grants to the hardest-hit member states. That comes on top of a seven-year, €1 trillion EU budget.
The EU will give most of the money to the member-states as aid, and the rest as low or no-interest loans. However, as we will see, these measures were not effective enough, as for instance unemployment in the Eurozone rose to 7.8%.
As an example, Germany has taken the following measures:
- Merkel announced a 130 billion euros economic package to help economic recovery
- The same applies to pensioners receiving old-age pensions where the limit for supplementary earnings has been raised 45.000 Euros a year.
- A one-time salary premium of up to 1.000 Euro shall be paid to health employees.
- A “Family Bonus” of €300 per child will be paid in 2020 to all parents.
Despite all these, the German economy fell by 10%, the unemployment rate rose and the government pays a part of the wages of workers, whose hours are cut rather than being laid off. Some 12 million workers are on the program between March and June, about 90% more than during the 2008/9 financial crisis. This begs the question: what will happen to these 12 million workers when the program ends? They will most likely be laid off.
- Latin America
Latin America has surpassed Europe in deaths, with 6 million cases and a total of 200,000 deaths. There is no unified response to the pandemic as countries took different approaches. Brazil is an example of what not to do to battle the pandemic, since its far-right president Bolsonaro has refused to take harsh measures. As a result, Brazil has had more than 3.7 million confirmed cases – the second highest in the world after the US. Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Peru are also battling major outbreaks, and are in the top 10 countries with the most confirmed cases.
According to ILO, there is a sharp rise in unemployment in Latin America and the Caribbean which left millions without income. The unemployment rate (which was already 8.1%), could rise between 4 and 5 percentage points, raising the number of unemployed in the region to a historical record of 41 million people. If the crisis worsens, which it most certainly will, the employment situation could worsen, amplifying social inequalities.
Let us take Brazil for example, which has not taken any strict measures. In Brazil, reopening measures are determined on a state level rather than a federal level, so the responses vary.
- The establishment of an “emergency monthly grant” to the most vulnerable, low-income, informal, self-employed and unemployed citizens.
- Public funding of part of the monthly income of workers who had their working hours reduced during the pandemic.
However, these measures are quite ineffective. The most recent World Bank forecast estimates a drop in economic growth of -7.2 %, which would take the unemployment rate up to 12.3 per cent, whereas if the latest IMF data are considered, a contraction from -9.4% unemployment levels would reach 13%. In absolute numbers, these rates imply that the number of people who are looking for jobs rose from 26 million before the pandemic to 41 million in 2020.
In Oceania, there were 34,500 cases of COVID-19 and 665 deaths, with 24 thousand recovering.
Generally speaking, the area did very well, also given its isolation from the rest of the world. Australia has reported 23,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 8 thousand active cases and 361 deaths, as of August 13, 2020. The following measures have been taken:
- The Government’s economic support package is 259 billion dollars.
- The Government’s $2.4 billion health package, provides support across the healthcare system.
- Australia has introduced the JobKeeper Payment to help businesses significantly impacted by COVID-19 to continue paying their employees.
However, even in Australia which is a rich country and gave a lot of money to fight the pandemic, according to an official statement by the Australian Government, COVID-19 has radically affected Australia’s labour market. We have seen an unprecedented fall in employment, a dramatic drop in hours worked, a significant increase in underemployment, a record number of people leaving the labour force, and job vacancies falling to the lowest level in over a decade. Young people and women have been disproportionately affected while some industries have done better than others. Thousands of jobs have been lost and the lives of many Australians were greatly altered.
The confirmed cases in Africa are 1.2 million, with 29 thousand deaths and 1 million recoveries. Of course, it has to be said here that due to the situation in Africa, many cases are not reported, as people do not have access to healthcare. Most of the reported cases come from Egypt and South Africa, where we have reliable data.
In Egypt, the following measures have been taken:
- 4 billion dollars for the economy
- 3 billion dollars for tourism
- A monthly sum of 25 euros for poorer workers
- Writing off of debts for businesses
The situation in Africa, the poorer continent in the world is very bad. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Africa at the time when the region was experiencing modest economic growth. The African economy cannot address the problems caused by the pandemic. 35% of people in Africa are considered extremely poor while the continent is still haunted by multiple inequalities of access to economic and social opportunities, particularly for women and the young, and among them those with disabilities.
- North America
The United States is facing a major outbreak of COVID-19 that has claimed the lives of 167 thousand Americans and infected more than 5 million people across all 50 states.
Specifically, the United States has taken the following measures:
- 3 trillion dollars (around 11% of GDP) for help.
- Couples earning up to 150,000 dollars per year, receive 2,400 thousand dollars, while individuals earning up to 75,000 dollars, receive 1,200 dollars.
However, the USA has been hit very hard, also because of the ineffective and strange decisions of its President. According to the US statistical data service, in July, 31 million people reported that they had been unable to work. The unemployment rate went from 4.4% to 14.7%, the steepest rise in such a short amount of time. This is the worst unemployment rate in the USA since the Great Depression in 1929. The pandemic also worsened other problems the American society is facing such as the racial issues, police violence and so on, which is why we still see Americans clashing with the police in various states.
The COVID-19 pandemic began in Asia in Wuhan, China, and has spread widely through the continent. Countries with the highest numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases are India, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. In total in Asia, the confirmed cases were over 4 million, with 3 million recovering and 92 thousand deaths.
I will not focus on India, as you know the situation better, but I would like to say a few things about Kerala, the state I had the pleasure of visiting a few years back. It seems that Kerala has handled the epidemic much better than the rest of India. It has one of the lowest mortality rates in India (0.4%) compared to the national average of 1.79%. Kerala’s success in containing COVID-19 has been widely praised both nationally and internationally. This is due to the approach of the State, with the progressive government of Kerala state, providing free healthcare for all, spreading awareness in the public, organizing successful campaigns such as the Break the Chain one and so on, which underlines the major role the political circumstances for the workers everywhere in the world. Of course, our Indian comrades may tell us more about Kerala.
- China has been hit hard by the outbreak with over 85 thousand confirmed COVID-19 cases and 4,500 deaths as of August 13, 2020. The government imposed strict containment measures, social distancing, and a 14-day quarantine period for returning migrant workers.
- An estimated 0.5 billion euro (or 4.5 percent of GDP) have been announced to battle COVID-19, to be spent on medical equipment, unemployment social assistance for up to 6 months, increased social assistance to families in difficulties and so on.
However, the Chinese economy shrank by 6.8%. According to the ILO, the health, economic and political impact of COVID-19 has been significant across Asia as a whole. The pandemic has inflicted real suffering, with a higher impact on the most vulnerable, and it has highlighted inequalities. Lack of secured income and sufficient social protection could force tens of millions of people into extreme poverty in this region.
You can clearly see that the problems and the suffering of the working class are more or less the same on a global scale, despite the measures taken by governments. I have tried today to give you a global view of what is happening during the COVID-19 pandemic, the response of various countries and regions and the results. I hope I have given you a comprehensive outlook, because it is very important for us to understand what is going on globally, so that we can be ready for the imminent attacks. Because make no mistake, comrades, the capitalist and reactionary forces have already started attacking workers’ rights, benefits and wages, trying to keep their profits. So, what is next for the workers? What do all these things mean for the workers, and what we, as a class-based progressive movement, need to do to protect the working and living conditions of the workers and the working class in general, around the world?
I would like to say that as it is made clear from the data we presented above, the pandemic has affected all countries in the world, on a global scale. In all cases, the people who were most affected were the workers and the poor. This is the same situation in all crises, as the capital is always trying to shift the weight to the shoulders of the poorer. Almost all countries took some measures to fight the pandemic, others harsher and others milder, and the results vary as some countries did better than others. What is clearly visible from the data though, is that it is an undeniable fact that unemployment rose sharply, and it will get even worse when the limited support from the governments ends, the working and living conditions of the working class has worsened and that the serious problems are yet to come.
What we can also say is that those who paid the price everywhere in the world, and those who are still paying, are the poor people, the workers and those who have seen their wages and benefits reduced, who have lost their jobs and who did not have access to good medical treatment. What is more, what was made very clear is the capitalist system’s failure to manage people’s healthcare, since in almost all countries the conservative governments have privatised the public healthcare systems which were effectively unable to deal with the pandemic, with the notable exception of Kerala, where the healthcare system has not been privatised. This made clear how our position for the public administration of the healthcare systems is correct.
Unfortunately, the situation is far from over. Like I said earlier, what will come next for the workers is going to be extremely difficult, as we are certain that the capital will use this pandemic as an excuse to attack workers’ rights, wages, to promote individual contracts, weaken trade union action and make the working people pay for the crisis once again. The ruling class around the world and the capital will certainly try to exploit this pandemic to create new realities, which will be on the expense of the workers. Already, many conservative governments in various countries in the world, to serve the various powerful interests, are opening up important sectors such as the tourist sector, disregarding the fact that it may be too soon, which is why we are seeing a new surge in COVID-19 cases around the world today. And they are doing so without taking the necessary health measures, which puts people’s lives in danger. In the coming months, the little help from governments to unemployed people during the pandemic will stop and they will have nothing to live on. We can only imagine for a moment how differently people would be treated, if the economy was structured not around individual interests but collective good, and how better things would be if the produced wealth was distributed fairly, without social inequalities.
The situation is extremely difficult comrades, and it will become even more dire in the following months. UITBB, as a class-based, global, progressive trade union movement affiliated with WFTU, has been in contact with its members around the world, and has been constantly getting feedback and information. Everything points to the imminent attacks by the employers. In some countries, this has already begun. No one knows where this situation will lead us so we need to be prepared for whatever comes next. UITBB, as a class-based trade union global progressive movement, needs to be ready. We need to employ our most powerful weapons, our sense of international solidarity, our collective actions, our coordinated activities and to be ready for everything that comes our way. It is our duty, comrades, as leaders in the trade union movement, to be every single day among the workers, preparing and educating them, enlightening them and leading them on the way to resist the tsunami of pay cuts, wages reduction and attack on vested rights that is coming our way. There is a very difficult weight upon our shoulders – to make workers understand that it is only through the abolishment of the exploitation of humans by humans, only through peace and respect can humanity build solid foundations for the future. We need to walk the path of collectivism and common good, as the world around us is constantly changing.
I would like to thank the Indian comrades of CWFI for giving me the opportunity to address the Indian comrades and anyone else who is watching around the world. Allow me to finish with a message of optimism for the future because, despite everything I have underlined above, I truly believe in our collective strength as working class. We are billions, comrades, and together nothing can stop us. We have something they will never have – our sense of international solidarity. I am certain that if we prepare the workers in the right way, if we focus on our class-based ideological truths, if we truly believe in what we are doing, if we function collectively and all together as one, this fight will be victorious once again for the workers. When we are united, we cannot be defeated!
The life of the working class is not to be gambled!
We take our lives in our own hands!
Long live international solidarity!
Long live UITBB!