Unions must support a stronger public COVID-19 response and a new global economy

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.

OECD Tackling coronavirus (COVID‑19) Contributing to a global effort

Around the world, millions of us are taking to our windows to applaud the front-line workers fighting COVID-19. This solidarity is welcome. But, as trade unions, the only way we can do real justice to these momentous efforts is by winning deep, systemic change that workers, now more than ever, deserve.

We must not accept a return to normal when that normal was part of the problem

In the short term, this means urging governments to pursue the most effective public emergency response possible. This involves converting local factories for the production of Personal Protective Equipment, ventilators, test kits, medicines and other essential supplies. It means requisitioning private hospitals to increase the number of available intensive care unit beds while suspending medical patents to put patients ahead of profits. We must support workers’ incomes – both formal and informal – and rapidly train and employ more public health nurses and doctors.

Read the OECD's COVID-19 Policy Responses on Health and healthcare

For these front-line workers, austerity isn't some abstract political concept: they now face brutal under-staffing and dire shortages of life-saving resources. The widespread lack of personal protective equipment has exacerbated the infection of health staff. In Italy, where I worked for years in public services, the number of hospital beds decreased by nearly a third over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, since the Global Financial Crisis, the Italian National Health Service budget has been slashed by EUR 30 billion, in part to comply with EU expenditure rules. To regain credibility and public trust, governments and international institutions must now show real leadership and put people first, instead of again opting for austerity.

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The real solution to this crisis is global solidarity. Unions must engage with government development agencies and international institutions such as the World Bank to ensure that financial support – without conditions – is available to reinforce the emergency response in developing countries. Meanwhile migrants and refugees – many of whom are confined in insanitary detention centres – must be released, hosted in safe conditions, provided the care they need and assured their fundamental human rights.

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Beyond the immediate response, we must push for fundamental changes to the global economic system. As UN Secretary General António Guterres put it, “We simply cannot return to where we were before Covid-19 struck”. We must not accept a return to normal when that normal was part of the problem.

"Business as usual" has been working great for billionaires, while working people in both developed and developing countries have seen their share of income decline. Recent high-profile donations by corporate leaders to the COVID-19 response are particularly galling, given the destructive impact of corporate tax avoidance on our public services. 

If we look behind the philanthropy charade, what we see is the major tech giants dodging over USD 100 billion in taxes across the past decade: money which could have saved lives. How can we let such a failing system continue? 

This time, not only is public spending holding back total global economic collapse, but workers are also on the frontlines preventing a total health disaster

After the Global Financial Crisis, things got even worse as public budgets bailed out private finance while struggling households and public services took the hit. Corporations cashed in, spending trillions on stock buy-backs and bonuses while avoiding their fair share of taxes. Meanwhile, right-wing extremists took advantage of widespread – and justified – public anger and social alienation to promote false solutions and fear mongering. As unions, we were not able to do enough to prevent workers from bearing the ultimate cost of the last crisis.

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This time, not only is public spending holding back total global economic collapse, but workers are also on the frontlines preventing a total health disaster. How can we ensure their incomes and conditions are improved, and not undermined yet again? How can we make those who profited last time pay their fair share? How can we build a more resilient public sector, better equipped to respond to the next crisis?

To win for the workers of the world, the global labour movement must now be bolder than ever

There are four key steps that our Global Union Federation believes are needed to win real change for workers.

First, we push for a fairer global tax system. A 50% tax on excess profits. An immediate digital services tax on tech giants – irrespective of the OECD BEPS process. And no bailout funding should be given to corporations who continue to operate through tax havens.

Second, we fight to end privatisation and build Universal Quality Public Services. Free public healthcare, education, utilities, transport and social protections. Fully funded, localised, well-staffed and ready to respond to whatever might come next.

Third, we support calls for debt relief, restructuring and the removal of public expenditure caps and loan conditionality, so that repayment crises do not limit the health response, undermine economic growth or exacerbate social divisions.

Fourth, we lead the campaign for a Global Green New Deal. A corporate-driven transition with a narrow focus on jobs is not enough. To change the game, we must reduce inequality, unemployment and our carbon footprint while limiting the systemic threats posed by climate change.

The current crisis shows that rapid policy changes are not only possible – they're essential. Markets will not save us. Strong public intervention will. We must not let austerity return. We must build a new economy, where people and planet are put ahead of profits. Where corporations and the mega rich pay their fair share, and workers win their fair share. Where quality public services are provided to all.

To win for the workers of the world, the global labour movement must now be bolder than ever.

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Health Income Inequality

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Rosa Pavanelli

General Secretary, Public Services International

Rosa Pavanelli is the General Secretary of the global union federation Public Services International (PSI). In March 2016 Pavanelli was nominated as Commissioner on the UN Secretary-General's High-Level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth, representing the trade union movement, health workers and public services.


Go to the profile of Stefan  Schuster
almost 2 years ago

I agree, that the ongoing crisis should not only bring harm and suffer, which it does, no doubt, but also a chance for a new start and a new way of thinking.

We have to set our focus on things which are basically for our society. This would be, what a “new normal” should be, and not a “new normal”, which some leaders are trying to get to by cutting freedom, human rights and democratic structures.

But we also have to be very pushy for that. Remember the financial crisis 2008? It did not threaten our lives so immediately like the current crisis does, but it was a threat, too, in its own way. Looking back, what have we done since there?

I hope we are able to learn about the current crisis and are willing to set appropriate steps – in the present and for the future.  

Go to the profile of Torben Steen Holm
almost 2 years ago

Dear Rosa Pavanelli, PSI

We all gain from strengthening structures that work well. A pivotal point, here, is to share best preactices between countries and regions. WEF and the OECD is doing a lot here - try to do even more.

My take on your comments:

1. A fair tax system is key - but go for fairness in ways that do not alienate ordinary businness people.

2. All countries need public institutions and services that are efficient, serviveminded and (of course) non-corrupt. But a private solution (say hospitals or nursing homes) can be as good, better - or worse than a public. You weaken the pursiut of services, reaching people well, if you start by denigrading the possibility of private solutions.

3. International help to Corona-stricken people should not be unduly restricted by preexisting debts etc. But: Some countries are systemically adverse to reform. Help to stricken countries shoud be handled in ways that do not underpin continued pressure to reform. 

4. We all tremor at the prospect of countries in the ME, Africa, or Latin-America about to enter untold suffering. My point, here, is  n o t  to argue 'private' in stead of public (Living in Denmark, many services are public). But to warn that recommendations that appear overtly strident will work against their purpose.