A State of Emergency for Workers

While the dedicated work of doctors and nurses are justifiably the center of attention and praise by society and government officials during the pandemic that has turned our world upside down, other workers in essential services that are on the front lines of fighting or supporting the battle against the Covid-19, are often missing from the spotlight. Without the dedication of supermarket and food service employees, facility maintenance and sanitation workers, delivery people and factory workers that help supply the society’s daily needs, the world as we know it would come to a halt. Without them, the rest of us would also be exposed to higher risks. People working these jobs are highly exposed to the risks of the pandemic and they deserve the recognition and praise of the society but more importantly, added support and protection from not only the private sector but also the government apparatus. Under the special circumstances caused by the outbreak of Covid-19 and the daily increase in the numbers of the infected, these workers deserve special treatment and support from government entities. In this new reality, it is not a stretch to consider their work as public service and their work environment as hazardous. 

The lack of attention and empathy for the working conditions at these jobs can go under the radar in sharply stratified and patriarchal societies where there is a large gap of income between the rich and poor, men and women. In the absence of strict enforcement and government supervision of existing worker protection laws and lack of effective workers unions, the health and overall well-being of these workers and their families are at the mercy of their employers and can easily be compromised if left unsupervised. In 2018, about 700,000 of Armenia’s estimated 2.95 million population lived under the poverty level (am.undp.org) and 17.71% of the population were unemployed (ceicdata.com). Moreover, the latest numbers on the average earnings of women in Armenia was 66.4% of men’s earning, or the gender pay gap was 33.6%, despite that fact that women lead men in tertiary degree graduation ratio by an average of 10% (unesco.org). These numbers and Armenia’s post-Soviet history of lax enforcement of labor protection laws, hardly suggest these workers (often women) have much of a bargaining power, unless the government is willing to pass additional legislation to protect their rights in the new and evolving circumstances, or at least, supervise a more strict enforcement of the existing labor laws on the books.

Armenia’s Constitution and Labor Code offers some hope in this regard. The labor legislative framework in Armenia is contained in the Constitution, as well as the Labor Code and other legal acts in the social and economic field. Together, they provide workers and employers a solid framework for association and theoretically, guarantee the rights of the Armenian workforce. Article 139 of the Labor Code, for example, indicates that the normal duration of the work should not exceed forty (40) hours a week, or eight hours per day and the maximum duration, including overtime work carried out at the request of the employer, should never exceed forty-eight (48) hours per week and twelve hours per day. Overtime is strictly regulated, namely some limitations are introduced for young and disabled workers, workers with family responsibilities, or work in hazardous conditions (Article 144). According to Article 146, overtime should not exceed four hours during two consecutive working days and 120 hours per year. Article 148 also regulates night work. This is defined as work performed between 10 pm and 6 am. And finally, articles 183 to 189 of the Labor Code state that particular wage conditions are provided for overtime work or night work, work carried out in hazardous conditions, during public holidays and rest days, idle time and part-time work (ilo.org).

Conventional wisdom tells us that the free market does many things very well. It helps foster an entrepreneurial spirit and it gets people motivated to come up with new ideas. I think it was Bill Gates who said: “Nobody believe in completely unadulterated capitalism.” ‘Nobody,’ is probably an exaggeration as there are people who’d love the unadulterated version, but they just can’t get away with it in the face of organized labor opposition. Independent Armenia’s version of the free market economy and capitalism is a product of an oligarchy and widespread corruption as well as a reaction to the perverse version of Soviet socialism. It will take more than a popular revolution to create a level playing field for all citizens in the free market. In the meantime, with vast wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, a high national poverty and unemployment rates, and without a tight government supervision, workers at lower ebbs of the pay scale can remain vulnerable to less than ideal working conditions.

The pandemic, however, can be an opportunity for society, private sector and the government to work together to attend to the needs of Armenian workforce. In this new reality, the welfare of the workers is not just a constitutional or legislative imperative but it can also be considered a national security and health issue. People who work in supermarkets, the food service, factories or hospitals, for example, can be considered essential, front-line workers. They consistently come into contact with the public, work long and unusual hours and can be exposed to infection from their work environment, or on their way to and from work. These people can get infected, go home and infect their family members and neighbors. Because of their economic conditions and family responsibilities, they do not have the privilege of self-isolation. 

More than ever, the Armenian government has to be the driving force and not just a passive observer in protecting the welfare of the workers in the new reality induced by the pandemic. The state of emergency should also extend to strict enforcement of the Labor Code and the Constitution when it comes to the well-being of the workers. In partnership with the private sector, the government should guarantee an environment where workers are compensated fairly for their work considering its hazardous nature, overtime is fairly calculated and compensated, proper breaks and nutrition are available during work hours, access to proper protective gear is accessible and mandatory at all times, fundamentals of hygiene are reviewed with workforce on a periodic basis and the work environment is sanitized and disinfected by the business owners on a regular basis. 

In the past few weeks the government has come a long way in adopting measures to lighten the economic burden of the pandemic on businesses and ordinary citizens, but a revolution where drastic improvements in workers’ rights and conditions are not achieved, especially under these circumstances, can always be accused of indifference to the needs of the ordinary citizen. Ernesto Ché Guevara was once quoted as saying: “In order to know about the illnesses of society, you have to know what men are suffering from, how they suffer.” Regardless, of what one thinks of Guevara’s politics or his version of the revolution, there is an undeniable element of truth in his observation. Armenia’s post-revolution government has to make it its business to understand what the society is suffering from, and how. The ability to truly empathize and act for the welfare of the workers and ordinary citizens, beyond words and symbolisms, is what will make the revolution a success and make those chosen by the people to lead drastically better than the ones who came before them.