Labor Day under Lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic sours May 1st celebrations in Afghanistan. But the crisis also shows that a vibrant workers' movement is needed.

No demonstrations, no rallies... and for many - no work! This year's May 1st will be an unusual one as the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered shops, offices, businesses and factories closed everywhere and (temporarily) restricted our democratic rights to assemble freely. And yet, the pandemic has created a major crisis for millions of Afghan workers on a multitude of levels and where the ideas of the workers' movement can give us guidance, too.

How to stay safe at the workplace when you cannot work from home? How to provide for your family when you or relatives get sick or you're laid off? How to take care of yourself when you have to care for a never ending stream of patients? How to survive in the informal sector?

To discuss these and other questions, FES Country Director Dr. Magdalena Kirchner talked to Mr. Maroof Qaderi, President of National Union of Afghanistan Workers, Employees (NUAWE).

Mr. Qaderi, International Workers' Day, is celebrated and honored in almost all countries around the globe for more than 100 years. Why and for whom is this day also important in Afghanistan?

First, let me, on behalf of the National Union of Afghanistan Workers and Employees (NUAWE), congratulate the workers and employees of Afghanistan and the world on the International Workers' Day. It is a day where we remind ourselves and others that workers' rights are human rights, and even if conditions are severe, we should not compromise on our aspirations for a better future.

NUAWE has a history of about half a century and has been active since in defending the rights of Afghan workers and employees in all governmental and non-governmental sectors, for and beyond our roughly 175,000 members. In Afghanistan, we face high levels of under- and unemployment on the one hand but also exploitation and hazardous conditions at the workplace on the other, and child labor is part of our reality. Therefore, it is a day to remind us that we have a long way to go to make workers' rights a part of people's reality.

As a union, we reflect the voices and demands of the workers everywhere and see it as our mission to raise awareness among people about the rights that they have and encourage them to stand up for themselves and to negotiate with the government and employers to achieve better conditions for everyone. And indeed, we had some achievements in the past. Examples are the revision of the Afghan labor law or the introduction of a minimum wage, at least in the public sector.

This May 1st will be unusual for us because of the lockdown as we cannot celebrate Labor Day and demonstrate in the streets against violations of labor rights that we, unfortunately, observe every day.

In the international media, there is much attention to the possible peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Why do you think that workers' rights and decent work conditions should be on the agenda of the talks?

Many Afghans support negotiations because they hope that peace will bring stability and economic growth and an end to endemic unemployment and poor work conditions. People are tired of a war that means poverty and suffering to millions of Afghans.

Four decades of war have destroyed almost all of Afghanistan's economic infrastructure, and many of our country's youths have lost their lives, leaving behind thousands of widows and orphans. Hundreds of thousands of breadwinners have been injured and disabled and can no longer provide for their families, others have experienced displacement or emigration because work opportunities vanished.

Finally, the war is also often used as an excuse to not implement international conventions and laws that would benefit workers. So, while the conflict has such a significant influence on our path towards decent work, we want to push another narrative as well: Decent work as one of the conditions for a sustainable peace because it is something all parties must wish to.

How should today's fighters provide for their families tomorrow? How can we prevent a post-war scenario where poverty forces, especially young people, back into the arms of radicals? How can we create incentives for Afghans in other countries to return to our homeland? Injustice is a driver for conflict, so social justice must be on top of the peace agenda as well, and – to be honest – workers and their interests should also be represented at the table!

The Corona-Pandemic is not only a health crisis. It has also created a dramatic situation for hundreds of thousands of Afghan Workers, how are they affected by the crisis? What can unions in general and NUAWE do to help these people in the crisis?

Everyone knows that the outbreak of the Corona Pandemic, not only in Afghanistan but in the world, has led to health, work security, and unemployment crisis.

As in other countries, Afghan health workers, doctors, nurses, and caregivers, who are crucial for testing and treating patients are working until exhaustion in hospitals and medical facilities. Often, they lack to most basic equipment to protect themselves; several have already lost their lives to the virus. Unions can help to raise awareness among those who cannot work from home, from traffic police to shop assistants, how to protect themselves at the workplace, and advise employers what to do to keep their workers safe.

Our biggest concern these days is the fate of daily and domestic workers who lost their jobs due to the lockdown and are now facing an existential crisis. Even before Corona, it was hard for them to provide for their families; unfortunately, working day and night did not help them to leave poverty behind. Now, with food prices increasing and uncertainty about how long the lockdown will continue, many have no idea how to put food on the table.

While many Afghans try to help their neighbors and people in need through donations and charities, we call on the Afghan government and the international community to find immediate and mid-term solutions to prevent a humanitarian crisis. 

What can Pacific-Asian Unions do in times of COVID-19? Find out in the FES Asia Coronabief

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