The right to work: gross violations under coronavirus pandemic

With most countries around the world imposing strict restrictions on movement and work to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, basic rights in many countries are being grossly violated.

More than four-fifths (approximately 81%) of the global workforce, estimated at 3.3 billion persons, are adversely affected by the lockdown of economies necessitated by the outbreak. The crisis is likely to result in a global reduction of 6.7% in working hours in the second half of 2020, an equivalent of 195 million full-time jobs. Regionally, that percentage is expected to be 7.8% (equivalent to 12 million full-time workers) in Europe, 8.1% (5 million) in the Arab states and 7.2% (125 million) in Asia and the Pacific.

More than four-fifths (approximately 81%) of the global workforce, estimated at 3.3 billion persons, are adversely affected by the lockdown of economies

With this extremely adverse impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the international economy, the debate over priorities has become heated. On one side is the need to revive the global and national economic engines as quickly as possible. On the other is the equally pressing desire to reduce the number of illness and deaths by maintaining social distancing.  Meanwhile, however, workers in some sectors—such as health, security and banking-–must continue laboring, even harder than usual. 

As we steer through this maze, we must assure that foundational rights are not sacrificed in the process. Both the public private sectors must comply with labor and human rights standards, particularly those governing occupational health and safety, salaries, termination and non-discrimination.

The right to work

The right to work is essentially the opportunity to secure a means of sustenance through freely chosen or accepted work. Article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires all parties to recognize the right to work safeguard it through "appropriate steps."

The right to work is crucial to achieving other human rights and is integral to dignity. Every person has the right to access work opportunities and appropriate working conditions that offer them a dignified life. The right to work ensures the survival of individuals and their families, and their integration into society.

Governments should begin educating their citizens on the right to work during university or technical and vocational education, in addition to taking the appropriate steps to ensure a safe environment /individual rights in the workplace.

The state of emergency and accompanying restrictions have led to many concerns such as:
 

Forced unpaid leave

Since March, most governments have suspended work considered unessential in Europe, the Arab world and the Middle East. The lockdown includes both the public and private sectors.

While governments typically guarantee the income of public employees, much of the private sector is not able to do so in the absence of sales. Individuals who are self-employed or who rely on informal and/or irregular labor typically receive no aid.

Among the sectors particularly adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic are travel/tourism/hospitality, food services and restaurants, retail trade, manufacturing, real estate and administrative services.

According the World Health Organisation (WHO), the pandemic has impacted—or soon will—almost 1.25 billion workers though layoffs or reduced hours or pay. The consequences are likely to lead to the worst international economic crisis since World War II. WHO says COVID-19 is likely to wipe out an equivalent of 125 million full-time jobs over the next three months.

In Egypt, five factories in the Port Said governorate closed 21 March, following the death of one worker and the infection of five others. Two days later, protests and strikes broke out in several other factories, calling on the owners to obey instructions to close.

Employees in other sectors  in the countryhave continued working, but from their homes, relying on the internet. However, the wireless infrastructure in many countries is inadequate or absent; in others, frequent power cuts fragment the ability to work.

Lack of sales is crippling other businesses. In the kingdom of Morocco, 83% of small enterprises suspended their operations despite measures taken by the government to support companies, such as a debt moratorium.

However, large companies have been affected as well. For example, the Renault Group, a French automobile manufacturer, announced the suspension of operations in many of its factories.

In Algeria, some enterprises, including the Port of Algiers, have reduced the proportion of workers on the job to around 50% in compliance with government regulations. The government mandated that leave (over and above annual leave) be granted to workers who have chronic illnesses, are pregnant or are mothers with children at home.

In Tunisia, arbitrary dismissal of workers due to the pandemic have been reported. The general quarantine imposed by the Tunisian government has triggered massive unemployment, which will likely increase poverty, currently estimated at 15%.  The president of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, Abderrahmane Hedhili, predicted that the number of the poor will increase by about 100,000. In addition, some companies and institutions have reduced employee salaries by 50%.

As a result, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) expects about 8 million people to be added to the number of poor in the Arab world, which was previously estimated at about 93 million residents. It says the middle class also will shrink, increasing those considered vulnerable in a region torn by conflict.

Employee dismissal

Many companies and organizations have terminated thousands of workers, without adhering to legal standards. Some of these dismissals involved discrimination based on nationality, the majority in the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Most of the victims were migrant workers.

For example, Saudi Arabia has deportated thousands of Ethiopians, including those suspected as being infected with the novel coronavirus. In just the first 10 days of April, 2,958 migrants were deported from Saudi Arabia, according to a UN official who spoke on condition that his identity not be revealed. Most of these individuals were terminated abruptly, giving them insufficient time to appeal the decision or settle their affairs. No testing for COVID-19 was offered.

In Qatar, authorities deported hundreds of Nepalese workers between 15-19 March. Amnesty International said that Qatari police informed the workers they would be tested to determine if they had contracted the virus and then allowed to return to their homes before being deported. However, they instead were transferred to detention centers for several days before being deported to Nepal.

Elsewhere, the Vertax company in Ben Arous, Tunisia, laid off about 56 workers, including members of the employee union (including its advisory committee) after protests to demand for their rights and wages, which they had not received for two months.

These practices constitute violations of the right to work, which obliges states to guarantee the right of individuals to freely choose or accept work. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights calls on states to assure citizens are not unjustly prohibited from working.

Discrimination

International law criminalizes discrimination in employment and health, yet many governments have not acted to monitor and control these actions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, ImpACT International has documented practices reflecting prejudice, racism, hatred and discrimination against Asians. These incidents included physical assaults, bullying, threats and use of degrading language in news reports and on social media platforms. Since January, dozens of incidents of discrimination and hatred against Asian people (since the outbreak of the coronavirus began in Wuhan, China) have been reported in Great Britain, the United States, Spain, Italy and some Arab countries. These attitudes, including statements by U.S. President Donald Trump and other government officials, have fostered hostility against the Chinese in particular, adversely affecting their working conditions.

In Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued an order on 3 April to exempt citizens working in private-sector enterprises from article 8, 10 and 14 of the law governing unemployment insurance (SANED). Instead of terminating their contracts due to lack of business caused by COVID-19, employers now may apply to the General Organization for Social Insurance (GOSI), thus allowing the workers to receive 60% of their wages for three months, up to a maximum of 9,000 riyals per month and a total value of 9 billion riyals. An estimated 1.2 million Saudi workers are expected to benefit, while hundreds of thousands of foreign workers are deprived.

Foreign workers make up about a third of the Saudi population of 30 million and more than 80% of the workforce in the private sector.

In the UAE, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation issued a decision authorizing companies affected by the coronavirus pandemic to "reorganize their business structure," including remote work, paid leave, unpaid leave and reduction of wages (temporarily or permanently). These procedures, however, apply only to "non-citizen" employees. Private enterprises may terminate the contracts of expatriates, force them to take unpaid leave or reduce their salaries.

Such practices violate the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, in which the first article defines the term "racial discrimination" as any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

These practices also constitute a violation of Article V of the convention, which safeguards the right to work, free choice of employment, just and favourable conditions of work, protection against unemployment, equal pay for equal work, and just and favourable remuneration without discrimination.

Working conditions

While many businesses have suspended operations due to the pandemic, essential sectors continued to work in various countries of the world, and their employees were compelled to go to their jobs, amid risks of contracting Covid-19.

Among the most prominent sectors that continued to work are health, security, banking and services related to health, nutrition, hygiene and sterilization. These employees’ continued work often has meant they needed to be quarantined, keeping them away from their families for long periods. Many of these employees are women, who constitute a high proportion of the nursing sector, for instance.

The most prominent concerns are:

  • Lack of adequate protective clothing, particularly in the health sector, where many members of the medical staff became infected or even died. In Egypt, for example, about 13% of coronavirus infections are in medical personnel. Similar reports have come from Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories. 
  • No hazard pay for high risk exposure. While some governments announced rewards to medical staff, others failed to compensate medical personnel and others, or provided insufficient compensation.
  • Long working hours without commensurate pay, common among medical personnel and in some industrial sectors.
  • Lack of multilingual campaigns to spread awareness of the dangers of the coronavirus and ways to protect against it, including those suitable for people with hearing and visual impairments.
  • Fragile and weak infrastructure, including water, sanitation, hygiene and medical waste management, especially in developing countries.
  • Failure to provide permits for workers needing to move around during the lockdown. In Jordan, for example, Labour Watch documented that a security company forced its employees to work during the curfew without granting them permits to ensure they were not arrested. In addition, a food company in Amman forced a staff member living in another governorate to work, despite a curfew. Some companies intentionally have not granted such permits, in order to force workers to spend the night inside the workplace.

Such practices constitute a violation of human rights standards that oblige governments to reduce the risk of occupational accidents and diseases, including ensuring that workers have access to health information and adequate protective clothing and equipment. This is a violation of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees everyone's right to "just and favourable" working conditions.

No risk allowance

The fact that some sectors had to continue work to confront the pandemic, with great risks facing them, necessitates the availability of a clear system that grants them compensation awards and suitable risk allowance. This must apply to health workers particularly, who were frontline fighting against the new virus. Some countries in Europe granted employees remunerative salaries and rewards, while these were limited and worthless in some Arab countries. For example, the reward of intern doctors at university hospitals of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, and Al-Azhar University hospitals, which currently range from 400 to 700 Egyptian pounds, has been raised to 2,200 pounds per month, starting with medical school graduates of December 2019, which means that the reward does not exceed $ 150. Likewise, the risk premium did not exceed few pounds, which is a very small amount if compared with the rewards allocated to the security and military authorities.

The great burden on some sectors, especially the medical and scientific ones, at this stage, necessitates a comprehensive review of the methodology of distributing budgets and salary allowances to suit their roles and responsibilities, without prejudicing one category at the expense of another.

Under article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the States Parties recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure, in particular, remuneration which provides all workers, as a minimum, with, fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind, in particular women being guaranteed conditions of work not inferior to those enjoyed by men, with equal pay for equal work.

Recommendations and required policies

In light of these concerns and violations of the right to health at work during the coronavirus pandemic, it is necessary that:

- States and governments comply with human rights standards, and take into consideration the right to work and health in their decisions aimed at facing the coronavirus pandemic.

- States and governments primarily bear the responsibility for providing a social security system that guarantees a decent live for all members of society, including different labor groups during crises and disasters.

- A permanent and independent social security system be imposed on the private sector institutions to guarantee a decent life for workers in this sector in crises and disasters, as well as in normal circumstances.

- States immediately stop any discriminatory or racist measures against migrants, expatriates, or non-citizens, which includes preventing forced deportation and arbitrary dismissal from work, in addition to guaranteeing appropriate working conditions.

- Countries and governments be called on to adopt policies that support companies and the private sector, in addition to employment opportunities, through tax exemptions, and direct financing of certain sectors.

- Infrastructure be improved in order to promote remote work, in addition to the improvement and reduction of the cost of electricity and Internet services.

-Businesses bear the responsibility for avoiding causing or contributing to harmful effects on human rights, in addition to working to prevent these effect, and addressing them when they occur.

-Companies adhere to human rights policies by following certain procedures, including due diligence, follow-up, and reform.

- States reconsider the distribution of their budgets to meet the needs of people during the state of emergency, and guarantee fair distribution between the various sectors, that is to say, it should focus on the health sector, education and research, instead of pouring most of the budgets into arming and security.

- States provide comprehensive protection equipment to the groups that are required to operate in these conditions, to ensure that they are safe.

- Mechanisms be found to facilitate communication for workers who are forced to move away from their families during the pandemic, and meet the needs of these families when necessary.

- State and companies bear the responsibility for providing travel movement permits for their workers and ensuring that the movement mechanism is safe enough.