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COVID-19 and Essential/Frontline Workers – where do we go from here?

COVID-19 and Essential/Frontline Workers – where do we go from here?

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by ALICIA A. DELLS

THE PAST FEW MONTHS, marred by a global death toll surpassing one million due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have brought into sharp focus the plight of essential/frontline workers worldwide.

We are now at the stage where countries that instituted lockdown measures to curb the spread of the deadly virus have either exited lockdown or are in the process of doing so. Throughout the pandemic, workers within the healthcare sector, protective services and first responders, transportation, retail and food industries, the media, among others, proved themselves to be the bedrock of our societies. They are the ones who ventured out daily (and still do), putting their lives and the lives of their immediate families at risk in order to ensure that core services remain accessible.

Meanwhile, non-essential workers were afforded the privilege of remaining in the comfort of their homes awaiting the passage of the COVID ‘storm’.

Despite the great contributions and heroic efforts displayed by essential/frontline workers, they are often the most vulnerable employees and are grossly underpaid with little to no benefits. I applaud the various civic initiatives worldwide aimed at recognizing the contributions of these workers at such a pivotal time. However, our societies should do more than just clap and pay lip service to these employees and instead implement policies that will provide tangible benefits and protection for them and their families.

The introduction of Hazard Pay is one way that essential/ frontline workers may be compensated for the substantial risks that they are called upon to endure. Hazard Pay is additional remuneration for employees who have been requested to remain and report to work under hazardous conditions, physical hardship, discomfort or distress. In some instances, hazard pay may be paid as a premium on regular wages or as a flat-rate pay. At present, I am not aware of any statutory provisions in the region that mandates hazard pay, but over the years some employee representative bodies have been able to negotiate similar benefits for certain classes of employees through collective bargaining agreements.

An employer has a duty to provide a safe system of work and a healthy work environment for its employees. This longstanding common law duty has been buttressed by statutory provisions within the region including section 6 of the Safety & Health at Work Act, Chapter 356 in Barbados, section 6 of the Occupational Safety & Health Act, Chapter 88 in Trinidad & Tobago and section 19 of the Occupational Safety & Health Act 2017 in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Further, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has deemed safe working conditions as a basic human right and a fundamental part of Decent Work.

Interestingly, section 104 of the Barbados legislation outlines that an employee may refuse to carry out dangerous tasks assigned to him pending consultation with his safety committee, trade union or staff association or the Chief Labour Officer, where there is sufficient evidence to indicate that an employee’s health and safety are in imminent danger. A similar provision is contained in section 15 of the Trinidad and Tobago Act and section 29 of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Act. Since essential/frontline workers are being asked in ‘emergency’ situations to forego their right to refuse dangerous work, it is only fair that they are compensated accordingly.

The world is currently experiencing unprecedented challenges with severe socio- economic consequences during this pandemic and thus it cannot be business as usual as far as employment relations are concerned. At this juncture, it is incumbent on trade unions and other employee representatives to advance the conversation on hazard pay in the region by advocating fearlessly on the behalf of their vulnerable constituents for meaningful legislative intervention.

l Alicia A. Dells is an Attorney- at-Law who is admitted to practise law in Barbados and St. Vincent & the Grenadines. She is a former journalist, social commentator and a women’s rights advocate.

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