COVID illuminates global inequalities in workers' rights and working conditions

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“COVID-19 and the climate crisis are shining a spotlight on the need to rethink the future global politics of work at a time when the world also faces into an economic slump.”


Humans should not be exploited as disposable resources and commodities. Coronavirus shows why we must democratize work globally and collectively strengthen workers’ rights and working conditions.

There are wide global variations in country responses to COVID-19, both in public health responses, and mitigating economic damage (protecting jobs, incomes, and safety standards). It is significant that the number of deaths and economic damage are highest in countries with right-wing populist governments like Brazil, India, UK, and US, who responded slowly due to COVID denial.

Some are more equal than others in the global economy. COVID-19 has starkly revealed global inequalities in workers’ rights and working conditions. Inequalities are most acute in less developed countries in the Global South compared to wealthier countries in the Global North.

Global South - exploitation

Workers in weakly regulated informal economies in the Global South are most likely to suffer from poor working conditions, unemployment, exploitation, gender and race discrimination, child labour, and exposure to health and safety hazards, as indicated by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Migrant workers, especially, are most vulnerable to exploitation as disposable commodities.

Countries like India have very weak workers' rights, notably in the unregulated informal economy. India's Modi government has faced accusations of using COVID-19 to exploit millions of workers. Some of India’s largest states have suspended labour laws to restart the economy. Trade unions claim changes to working hours, minimum wages, and health and safety regulations weaken workers' rights at a time when resistance is difficult.

In the Arabian Gulf states, low-income migrant workers are most exposed to poor working conditions in the pandemic. In Brazil, the right-wing populist Bolsanaro government response to COVID-19 has been widely criticised, with people exposed to safety risks, and unemployment and poverty increasing.

Moreover, there are also substantial differences in workers’ rights and intersectional inequalities (class, gender, race) between and within countries in the generally wealthier Global North.

American hire and fire

Workers in the United States have few employment rights, and most employers do not recognise trade unions. It is quite easy for employers to hire and fire workers, with very weak job and income protections. We are seeing this with COVID-19. Lots of US employers across different sectors are laying off workers, and unemployment has risen rapidly. Many laid-off workers are only receiving unemployment payments. Race inequalities are widespread.

Participants in a recent poll in the US ranked stronger workers’ rights as the top priority. Three out of four Americans said they would support workers having the right to engage in collective bargaining for salary increases, health benefits, paid sick leave, and worker safety. Indeed, grassroots trade union organising activity has increased in the US in response to COVID-19 related health and safety risks, and to demand better working conditions, job security and a real living wage.

European job retention

Europe generally evidences stronger collective workers’ rights compared to the US, especially in Northern Europe. Many European countries are more strongly unionised than the US, albeit with significant variations between Western and Eastern Europe.

There are notable differences in labour market policy responses to COVID-19 between the US and Europe. Many European countries have responded by introducing Job Retention Schemes (JRS) to prevent redundancies, which have been negotiated with trade unions and employer groups. Furloughed workers are paid up to 80-90% of their wages while the schemes last. Germany’s short-time working scheme (Kurzarbeit) is the most famous exemplar.

The problem would be if such job preservation schemes are withdrawn too abruptly, and mass redundancies proliferate. In the UK, some employers have announced mass redundancies, like British Airways, despite using the JR scheme and receiving loans. BA unions also claim that BA plans to terminate employees’ contracts and rehire them on new contracts with worse pay and conditions. This comes across as opportunism.

Variation in work and employment responses to COVID-19 are evident elsewhere around the world. Many Asian countries had to face the pandemic earlier than elsewhere, and South Korea is among the most successful responses. New Zealand is also portrayed as very successful.

Rethink global politics of work

COVID-19 and the climate crisis are shining a spotlight on the need to rethink the future global politics of work at a time when the world also faces into an economic slump. The current system of continuous global capital accumulation (neo-liberalism, free-market capitalism), accentuating unequal distribution of perpetual economic growth, is broken. Consumer capitalism, as currently configured, is destroying the planet and causing widespread human suffering among the poorest populations. It is unsustainable.

A new global politics of work is required. There needs to be international coordinated responses and redistribution of resources to improve labour protection standards in the Global South.

The ILO should be politically supported to play a stronger regulatory role in spearheading a more emancipatory and democratic global future of work. The ILO’s constitutional endorsement of ‘decent work’, stipulating upon its formation in 1919 that ‘labour should not be regarded merely as a commodity or article of commerce’, should be heeded by politicians worldwide.

Unfortunately, the political will does not seem to exist currently in a world where many countries have retreated from global multilateralism to individualist protectionist nationalism. Such a ‘beggar thy neighbour’ approach is especially damaging in the current existential crisis.

This does not mean we cannot present what could be done and contest the battle of ideas. Workers’ rights should be strengthened globally, especially collective trade union rights. There is a need to outlaw extreme precarious working conditions in global supply chains, so workers are not disposable commodities. There should be a Global Living Wage and a World Basic Income, both tailored to local circumstances.

There have been calls for a new social contract underpinning fundamental labour and human welfare rights worldwide. This could prioritise socially essential key workers in foundational economy activities (such as health and social care, housing, transport, food production and distribution, community and green projects), that keep society functioning and support human life.

This could be supported by state Job Guarantee schemes. The JG idea has gained popularity in the US, but versions have been implemented in countries like Argentina, India and South Africa.

Above all, a global Green New Deal is necessary to create new green jobs, combat climate crisis, and shift economic activity away from unsustainable extractive capitalism that continually plunders scarce planetary resources. For example, green jobs could be created through global reforestation schemes, which would also benefit the environment and eco-tourism.

I am part of a community of thousands of work and employment scholars collectively calling for democratizing work and useful employment for all. A pandemic and environmental crisis require urgent international collective mobilisation and solidarity to champion the many and not the few, and preserve life on this planet.