Just as the Covid-19 crisis has transformed the daily lives of most people across the planet, it has highlighted many of the traits of the socio-economic system that predated the virus but were very largely ignored. In particular, it has highlighted the precariousness of many of the most essential workers to the continued existence of society, those ensuring health and care, food cultivation and harvesting, goods delivery and waste disposal.
Too common in each of these areas of work across Europe has been widespread lack of protective material, of tests, of hygienic working conditions, in often stressful and high-pressure environments, where overtime and excessive hours is the norm, and workers’ rights and the possibility to collectively organize have been further weakened.
People who have moved country are disproportionately represented in each of these kinds of precarious but essential work, whether they are seasonal agricultural workers, care-workers looking after the elderly and infirm, foreign students doing platform work for some income, or doctors and nurses working in another country.
This May Day in exceptional circumstances must be the day to denounce these conditions as unacceptable wherever they exist, and call for a transformation of the economy and its priorities coming out of Covid-19.
Recent scandals around the deals made by Western European governments and cities to fly-in agricultural and care workers from Eastern European countries in poor sanitary conditions have drawn public attention to the issue but done little to change these practices.
There is a danger that with the transition out of the first phase of confinement across Europe, even more workers are exposed to dangerous conditions, in a continued situation of emergency in which it is more difficult for these people to ensure respect of their rights: the danger that in a push to get back to ‘normal’ and restart the economies, the health, safety and wellbeing at work of many people is sacrificed, particularly for those migrant workers for whom national governments feel a weaker sense of responsibility.
At the end of 2019, the European Union announced the start of work of the European Labor Authority, with the mission of guaranteeing the European social pillar principles including healthy and safe working conditions, decent wages, gender equality, secure employment and social dialogue. This belated announcement at the end of the Juncker Commission sounded like an acknowledgement of at least some of the shortcomings of the Union as a whole in the financial crisis starting from 2008.
Now as the European Union is again criticized for its lack of solidarity and planning during the latest crisis, we call on the European Labor Authority in particular to take the initiative to ensure that as Covid-19 crisis risks to accentuates inequalities between people at work, decisive and coordinated governmental intervention instead uses the opportunity to transform the European economy in ways which make work fairer, more equal and safer, both for Europeans and all migrants.
Trade unions, workers’ organizations and civil society in general must make the connections between the need to transform the global economy to become safe, fair and democratic, and the need to transform the economy to become ecologically sustainable. This is the agenda of a generation, a generation that has experienced how financial, health and ecological crises combine and multiply, and who say no to every form of precarity in the new world we make together.