UNI Asia-Pacific unions lead the pack in corona crisis

Trade unions play a critically important role in mitigating the economic and social effects of the corona crisis. UNI’s Asia-Pacific Regional Secretary Rajendra Kumar Acharya puts the spotlight on the vital activities of workers' rights organizations.

UNI Asia-Pacific 5th Regional Conference, Nov 2019, Kathmandu (Credit: UNI Apro)

Asia was the first region affected by the spread of the coronavirus. The UNI Asia-Pacific Regional Organisation (Apro)* monitored the situation carefully, as governments in Asia rolled out public health measures to curb the spread of the virus. Early on, it became clear: The most immediate and visible effect of the pandemic is the impact on ordinary people’s lives and livelihoods.


Workers on the frontline of the pandemic

Health and care workers, cleaners and private security, postal and delivery workers, grocery and supermarket clerks in this time of crisis, they all are recognized as essential, working on the frontline and providing the bare necessities for all of us. People working in media as well as call centres are doing extremely challenging jobs in this global emergency. Many of them are working extended hours, often without proper protection, suffering under the threat of unemployment and infection.


UNI Apro affiliates’ quick response

In Asia, UNI Apro is proud that affiliate unions have led the pack and were quick to formulate responses, some even before COVID-19 was officially named on 11 February. In Macau, the New Macau Staff Rights Gaming Union mobilized to demand that all casino employees should wear masks and that the government should close and disinfect all casinos. In the early stage of the outbreak in Korea, the Grand Korea Leisure Union had already urged the management to prepare for the impact of COVID-19 and to guarantee workers’ safety.

Our unions from Australia to Nepal, from Pakistan to the Philippines all alerted their members to defend their rights and urged their employers to provide access to special paid leave, particularly, for employees required to self-isolate or who cannot work due to the impact of the pandemic.

We are also proud that many of our affiliates have lent their voice in solidarity to amplify the plight of precarious workers – those who are often described as self-employed – casuals, labour hires and migrant workers.


UNI’s COVID-19 global survey

In our COVID-19 global survey that ended on the 23 March 2020, we asked all our members around the world about their situation on the ground. Unions play a vital role in the preventative efforts to fight the virus: Over 90% of unions have been pro-actively reaching out to their members with crucial COVID-19 information. At the same time, 60% of union members who continue to work are overwhelmingly impacted by shortages of protective equipment such as masks, gloves and sanitizing wipes. A situation that is simply not acceptable.

As a result of our joint efforts, we can point to first successes in Asia: Compelled by Korean Workers United’s advocacy, the Korean government announced additional measures to support exhausted health workers. Over 2000 healthcare professionals working on coronavirus treatment will be compensated for overtime work, get enhanced rest allocation, and receive additional protective gear. We are also pleased that our affiliate Union of Private Hospitals and Healthcare Workers in Nepal successfully lobbied the government to provide insurance for each of the healthcare workers in the country. But these can only be first steps in the protection of workers.


Changing the structure below the crisis

Even during this global emergency, we remain conscious of the digital transformation that was poised to disrupt the future world of work already before the pandemic. And pointedly, the theme of UNI Apro’s 5th Regional Conference in November 2019 was securing a just transition for workers in the digital disruption age – seeking to enhance our unions' capacity for dialogue with employers and governments. In the current ever-evolving context of this pandemic, we call upon governments, employers and corporates to refocus this dialogue and put the emphasis on people rather than profits. Now, it is high time for us to push for a new social charter to save not only the workers and people but also our planet – throughout this unprecedented crisis and thereafter. It is a mission that can only be successful when all tripartite partners join forces.


* UNI is a global union federation representing more than 20 million workers from over 150 different countries working in the cleaning and security, commerce, finance, gaming, graphical and packaging, hair and beauty, information, communication, technology, services, media, entertainment and arts, post and logistics, private care and social insurance, sport and tourism industries: https://www.uniglobalunion.org



Rajendra Kumar Acharya is the Regional Secretary of UNI Apro. Acharya’s union leadership began in 1989 when he became a local union delegate in his home country Nepal. In the years since, he has held several local, national, as well as international positions. Today, he leads one of the largest Asian trade union federations.

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

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