OPINION: This May Day is about the essential role of workers in the face of global crises

Friday, 1 May 2020 15:17 GMT

Nurses with goggle marks and plasters on their faces walk after their shift at the intensive care unit where patients with COVID-19 are treated at Juarez hospital, as the coronavirus disease (COVID 19) continues in Mexico City, Mexico April 29, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The frontline workers getting us through the coronavirus pandemic are the same ones who will help us in the climate crisis

May Boeve is executive-director at 350.org; Luisa Neubauer is a German climate activist and one of the main organisers of the Fridays for Future movement in Germany; Sharan Burrow is the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation; Yeb Saño is a Filipino activist and former climate diplomat; and Nnimmo Bassey is a Nigerian climate activist, author and poet.

The Covid-19 pandemic is having unimaginable impacts on our lives and every sector of our economies. Hundreds of thousands of lives are being lost, confirmed cases are in the millions and many of those who recovered will suffer life-long consequences. This planetary health crisis compounds the consequences of climate breakdown and highlights the essential role of workers in our societies.

While extensive lockdowns are slowing down the spread of the disease, the sudden halt to movement and economic activity is having a catastrophic effect on people’s jobs, income and livelihoods.

According to the International Labour Organization, four out of five people in the global workforce of 3.3 billion are affected by workplace closures, and as many as 195 million full-time equivalent jobs might also be lost in the process. 

Flows of production and consumption are temporarily on hold: most industrial production has paused. Planes are grounded, cars parked and public transport circulates with strict capacity limits. Those who can work remotely are doing so, but those who have lost work and income face months of uncertainty and struggle to buy food, pay rent and bills. 

This is true across the world, from workers in the informal economy in the global south to precarious gig workers in richer countries. Loss of work, increased deaths and risks in the workplace cut along race, gender, and class lines.

Many of the frontline staff risking their lives are women, people of colour, migrants and working class. The pandemic has reminded us that without essential workers, decent work and social protection, our health and well-being will collapse.

While neoliberal politicians have come to consider workers as expendable, it is key workers who are getting us through this crisis, caring for us at home and in hospitals, and keeping what remains of the economy turning.

Everywhere, small businesses are transforming their production lines to manufacture essential protection equipment that workers need and that many governments have failed to provide. In many countries, despite suffering severe restrictions, the informal sector keeps providing essential services.

Yet these people, who already generate a good portion of economic output have no rights or guaranteed minimum living wages. And these frontline workers are the same people who we will rely on to respond to another ongoing global crisis: climate breakdown.

May 1st is International Workers Day and since celebrations began, 100 years ago, never has there been a more stark reminder of its importance. On this day of struggle and unity, we stand together as workers, activists and human beings, calling for a Just Recovery to the twin global threats of Covid-19 and the climate crisis. 

The solutions for economic and social recovery from both crises must centre on principles of justice, care, community-empowerment and international solidarity with democratic rights and freedoms, for the safety and long-term resilience of the most vulnerable. 

Since the pandemic began, many corporate lobbyists from the oil and gas industry have been quick to knock on the doors of power asking for handouts for their executives and shareholders, and a rollback of essential environmental regulation. Such requests do not benefit the working class, nor climate.

The rollback of environmental regulation and the exploitation of workers go hand in hand and are part of the same system of exploitation. Support to industries and sectors will be important, but they must come in the context of real climate action with clear goals of limiting global warming, as agreed in the Paris Agreement. 

Recovering from this crisis isn’t just about getting back on our feet after the pandemic, it must also address the climate emergency. A huge public investment is needed to develop renewable energy, reduce emissions through energy-efficiency measures, transform our public transport and urban planning systems, re-localize food production and bring about a  just transition for working people and their communities. 

There has to be a clear pathway back to work for those unemployed, young, and marginalised, creating millions of decent jobs whilst building the zero-carbon future we need.

We need a recovery that encompasses five key principles: to put people’s health first; provide economic relief directly to the people; help our workers and communities, not corporate executives; create resilience for future crises, and build solidarity and community across borders.

They are the only way we can build back better as one, united, global community.