When You Protect Workers, You Protect Everybody: Labour and COVID-19

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When You Protect Workers, You Protect Everybody: Labour and COVID-19

A lack of labour rights, particularly workplace health and safety standards, makes entire populations vulnerable to disaster.

‘It will take longer to reach the United States, but when it does, it will be widespread and out of control’, I told my friend one morning in March. Italy was implementing its first lockdown, and we were only starting to understand the gravity of the pandemic – before that, I had dismissed it as nothing more serious than swine flu. ‘People can’t afford to see a doctor. People can’t afford to take time off work if they think they’ve been exposed – half of Americans can’t even afford a $400 emergency. It’s a recipe for disaster.’

Even then, I never could have imagined how bad things would get. Seven months later, I’m mourning the lives of the 220,000 Americans who have died because of this pandemic, with the actual death toll likely significantly higher.

There are a lot of factors to blame for how bad our outbreak is – lack of a coordinated national response and politicisation of simple measures like mask-wearing, to name a few – but one of the most significant is lack of adequate protections for workers.

Workplace health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic: The case of Amazon
It’s no surprise that COVID-19 spread like wildfire through workplaces with poor health and safety protections. Amazon – which has been accused of maintaining gruelling, poor working conditions in its warehouses – reported that nearly 20,000 of its employees have been infected with coronavirus as of October 2020. Workers involved in a lawsuit against Amazon have argued that employees ‘were explicitly or implicitly encouraged to continue attending work and prevented from adequately washing their hands or sanitising their workstations’. Workers claim that Amazon fired employees who protested the lack of reliable safety measures.

I'm risking my life for a dollar’, one employee said. She claimed management never informed the workers about COVID cases in the warehouse, and that she only learned about a co-worker dying through a Facebook post.

Even as workers struggle, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, who was the world’s richest person even before the pandemic, saw his fortune grow by tens of billions of dollars. According to Oxfam, ‘Jeff Bezos could personally pay each of Amazon’s 876,000 employees a one-time $105,000 bonus today and still be as wealthy as he was at the beginning of the pandemic’. Meanwhile, his workers are no longer receiving hazard pay.

Amazon disputes the workers’ allegations, and claims it has installed safety measures. The company also says that its employee infection rate, as a percentage, is lower than the general population. (You can find Amazon’s responses to various allegations here, and all of the articles referenced above include company responses to the claims.) However, the company has been plagued by allegations of cover-ups for months, and its infection data do not include contractors such as delivery drivers. It’s worth noting that in France, Amazon’s operations were suspended by court order because of inadequate workplace safety measures during the pandemic.

Amazon is not alone: essential workers across the United States have struggled with inadequate safety measures, leading to significant health risks.

Workers and community transmission
Once infected at the workplace, individuals are likely to spread the virus to their families and their local community. One of the workers involved in the Amazon lawsuit stated that after contracting COVID-19 at her workplace, the virus infected her cousin, who subsequently died. Other workers have also raised concerns that because of their workplace conditions, they risk infecting their family members. When families are unable to take time off or work remotely, and they lack access to adequate healthcare, the results can be disastrous for the entire community.

One study found that Black communities experience significantly higher rates of COVID-19, and many other sources have pointed out the racial divide in coronavirus cases. The study suggested that the higher COVID infection rate among African Americans is at least partly attributable to socioeconomic factors. African Americans make up a large portion of the essential workforce, and as the study notes, ‘Because essential workers often cannot conduct work at home, social distancing is inherently more difficult for these workers, who also often lack sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment’. Essential workers tend to be among those in the lower income brackets and are more likely to live in overcrowded housing, leading to even higher risk of community transmission.

A systemic problem
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a role in overseeing employee safety during the pandemic. However, OSHA has done little more than issue voluntary guidelines and has failed to set mandatory emergency standards.

OSHA has argued that establishing standards is unnecessary because the agency already has the authority to penalise businesses under the General Duty Clause, which requires employers to create an environment ‘free from recognized hazards’. As of 5 November, OSHA has received more than 10,000 complaints of unsafe conditions related to the pandemic. However, it has issued fewer than 150 COVID-related citations.

OSHA has faced challenges for years, compounded by the push for deregulation of workplace health and safety. Allegedly, OSHA has a critically low number of inspectors, the personnel responsible for conducting inspections and investigations. In a pandemic, how can we expect companies to establish effective workplace health and safety practices, when they will likely not be punished for failing to do so?

A global problem
These challenges are not only faced by workers in the United States. All around the world, businesses with inadequate workplace protections have consistently registered an alarming number of COVID cases: slaughterhouses in the Netherlands; garment factories in Bangladesh and Cambodia; mines in Peru; maquiladora companies in Mexico; and the list goes on. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre website has reported the breadth of the problem around the globe.

Workers’ rights are human rights
And so we have a perfect storm. Workers, especially essential workers, are vulnerable in their workplace due to poor health and safety standards during the pandemic; those low-wage workers face barriers to healthcare, and often cannot afford to take days off from work every time they may have been exposed to the virus; workers transmit the virus in the workplace, then take the virus home to their families; the virus is more likely to spread through the crowded housing conditions in which many low-income workers live and public transportation that low-income workers rely on; the virus passes through community transmission; the cycle repeats. The virus can then easily spread outside of workers’ communities to affect the population as a whole.

Better labour rights – particularly the right to safe working conditions – can help prevent the spread of pathogens such as COVID-19 in workplaces, where many, many transmissions occur. Allowing companies to violate labour rights has real costs. Businesses profit, but society loses. How many cases of COVID-19 could have been prevented if governments and businesses took their responsibility to protect and respect human rights seriously? And how much impact has workplace-driven spread had on the economy? With so many other contributing factors, it’s impossible to say. But it’s safe to argue that better workplace health and safety standards are key for slowing the spread of this pandemic and preventing similar health crises in the future.

Workers are the cornerstone of society. If we truly want to build a more resilient world, we need to make sure their human rights are safeguarded.

Ashley Nancy Reynolds

Written by Ashley Nancy Reynolds

Ashley Nancy Reynolds is a graduate of GC Europe. Her research focuses on business activities in conflict zones, and she holds a special interest in human rights due diligence and impact assessment. Ashley works for the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, and the views in this article are her own.

Cite as: Reynolds, Ashley Nancy. "When You Protect Workers, You Protect Everybody: Labour and COVID-19", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 26 November 2020, https://gchumanrights.org/preparedness/article-on/when-you-protect-workers-you-protect-everybody-labour-and-covid-19.html


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