22 July, 2020United in their demand for safety and union rights during the pandemic, around 80 trade union leaders in the pulp and paper industry from around 20 countries met online to analyse impacts, approaches and responses from around the world to the impact of Covid-19 on the sector.
Opening the meeting, sector co-chairs Leeann Foster, international vice-president of North American union USW and Pontus Georgsson, president of Swedish union Pappers, stressed that through determination to tackle challenges together, IndustriALL’s pulp and paper sector is able to share ideas, solidarity and contacts, at a time when joining forces is more important than ever.
The pandemic has underlined the importance of health and safety at work. IndustriALL is campaigning for all occupational health and safety conventions to be recognized as fundamental and that Covid-19 should be recognized as an occupational disease.
Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, safety in the sector was made a priority. The pulp and paper sector has committed to a campaign on the three fundamental worker rights needed to make work safe:
- The right to know
- The right to refuse dangerous work
- The right to participate
Outlining the next coordinated action highlighting the right to participate, IndustriALL sector director Tom Grinter said:
"Safety management work must be done for us and not without us; unions must have a seat at the table at every level. The first two core rights have been highlighted with action by workers, and now we will focus on the third one. The right to participate is fundamental, especially in the time of a pandemic.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a downturn in the production of coated and uncoated paper for journals, schools and offices. However, many products produced in the pulp and paper sector were recognized as essential in several countries, like tissue production for example.
The meeting provided an opportunity for unionists from around the globe to come together to stand in solidarity with fellow workers.
IndustriALL assistant general secretary Kemal Özkan talked of how Covid-19 impacts not only supply chains, jobs and the economy, but is also in some countries contributing to a shrinking democratic space.
“We see increasing attacks on workers’ and human rights and we have to push back. International solidarity is crucial and together we are strong enough to defend those in need.”
In many countries, like Poland, trade union work is difficult as employers use the pandemic as an excuse for union busting.
In Colombia, the trade unions are not only fighting the pandemic, but also violence and harassment on a daily basis.
Didi Pahlevi from FSP2KI, Indonesia, asked for solidarity for the 38 union members that have been laid off by large pulp and paper company PT Tanjungenim Lestari. The workers have been picketing outside the plant for 50 days with no communication from the employer.
Union representatives from around the world reported on how the pulp and paper industry in their countries are responding to the impacts of Covid-19.
After Sommai Saranjit from Thailand spoke of the challenge to organize new, young workers in the plants, speakers from other countries reiterated the problem of increasing union density in the workplace.
Pontus Georgsson reported a slight increase in union membership in the pulp and paper industry in Sweden; a few percentages up from the usual 94 per cent:
“Contamination in our worksites has been incredibly low, helped with a stable employment and shift system. Our bargaining demand of 4 per cent wage increase has been postponed by seven months, but not dropped.”
Union reports from the different countries talked about guidelines for the workplace as more return to work, including ensuring distancing, obligatory temperature checks and facemasks, as well as ensuring continued wage payments for furloughed workers.
Closing the meeting, Leeanne Foster said:
“There is so much strength and expertise in this group. We have risen to the challenge of Covid and gone beyond. We must reinvent ourselves in the crisis. We continue to carry out the plan we made in Budapest nearly three years ago.”