The South Asian leg of BWI’s series of online conversations on COVID-19 and the world of work on 27 May was warmly received, with nearly 200 trade unionists from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka joining the webinar. The online event was also attended by BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson, BWI Asia Pacific Vice Presidents Dave Noonan and R.C. Khuntia and BWI Regional Women’s Committee Member Smritee Lama.
The webinar started with a short video titled “‘The homeless and hopeless : Migrant workers,’ prepared by the BWI South Asia Office, which outlined the challenges and plight of migrants, and the unions’ different efforts in the sub-region to assist and support migrant workers. This was followed by a message from Yuson expressing solidarity to BWI’s fifty-six (56) affiliates in South Asia. “We are with you in this difficult time and shall continue to support your struggles to protect the rights of workers, including the millions of migrants affected by the pandemic. We must not be defeated by COVID-19 crisis, but see this as an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with our members and prepare for the ‘new normal’ in our work."
Yuson also paid tribute to fellow trade union leaders who passed on such as Arumugan Thondaman, Sr Lankan Cabinet Minister and leader of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress and BWI’s very own, Jin Sook Lee.
Noonan and Khuntia followed shortly with their respective presentations. Noonan shared Australia’s situation and experience in handling COVID-19. He also gave solidarity messages to all workers and families affected by Cyclone Amphan in parts of India and Bangladesh. Khuntia, meanwhile, discussed the impact of COVID-19 in South Asia and the interventions initiated by trade unions. He enumerated the affiliates’ different actions covering advocacy, outreach & relief work, social dialogue with employers and governments and linking workers with state stimulus packages. He also spoke on the challenges faced by trade unions and workers during the pandemic.
For her part, Lama provided the important gender analytical lens on COVID-19. She explained the pandemic’s impact on working women such as the increasing cases of domestic violence, the disproportionate care responsibilities and household burden, lay-offs, limited health care and inadequate social security coverage.
During the open forum, a number of unionists from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan shared the challenges they face in their sectors and respective organising areas. Cement, infrastructure projects, brick kilns and minor forestry sector issues were discussed. They also presented the unions’ interventions and commended BWI for the support it provided its affiliates. The plight of migrant workers was also thoroughly deliberated. South Asian migrants from Kuwait, Oman, UAE and Qatar shared their struggles and the challenges they face due to COVID-19.
Meanwhile, representatives from the SSOs – Indira Gartenberg (DGB-BW), Manoranjan Pegu (SASK), Prabhu Rajendran (FNV Moondial) and ILO (Seeta Sharma) observed the webinar.
Khuntia commended the unions in the South Asia region for standing up for workers' and trade union rights amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. “This is the time when workers need unions, more than ever. I am happy that unions have responded well and have been reaching out to their affected members and workers in general, including migrants. We shall continue to collectively oppose and thwart our governments’ anti-labour measures and policies under the cover of responding to COVID-19.”