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Open Society and Labor Groups Call for a Just COVID-19 Recovery During the First Global Summit of Essential Workers

NEW YORK—Essential workers from North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia will meet with global business and government leaders on September 8–10 to discuss a framework for a just economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Essential for Recovery Summit will center the demands of care workers and the 61 percent of workers worldwide who labor in the informal economy, including domestic workers, agricultural workers, street vendors, and home-based workers. Open Society is supporting and coordinating the first global gathering of essential workers.

Despite the egregious and life-threatening disparities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, workers around the world continue to fight for their rights in the workplace. Far too many workers continue to endure limited access to healthcare, lack of social protections, dangerous work conditions including exposure to COVID-19, and frequent harassment and violence while working.

The Essential for Recovery Summit unites workers around four asks of governments and multilateral institutions worldwide. Workers are calling on them to secure:

  • better income and working conditions;
  • healthy and safe workplaces;
  • social protections; and
  • an end to violence and harassment. 

The summit will feature conversations with cultural influencers like Sophia Bush, Martin Sheen, and Yalitza Aparicio Martínez, powerhouse leaders of worker movements like Ai-jen Poo in the United States, Myrtle Witbooi in South Africa, and Carmen Britez in Argentina, and such global business and government leaders as Guy Ryder (International Labor Organization Director), Brid Gould (Sodexo), Saadia Zahidi (World Economic Forum). Essential workers will discuss the necessity for an ambitious social contract that puts the well-being of workers at the heart of government spending and corporate behavior, rather than piecemeal interventions or austerity measures similar to those that followed the collapse of financial markets in 2008.

The event builds on Open Society’s $130 million investment to combat the devastation to workers wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, longstanding efforts to tackle the rise in precarious and informal work, and the need for greater representation and inclusion of non-standard, migrant, women, and other marginalized workers.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated the vulnerability and exploitation that millions of low-paid workers experience every day, especially for women, migrant workers, and people of color,” said Mark Malloch-Brown, president of the Open Society Foundations. “Governments and employers frequently and deliberately exclude these workers from labor rights and social protections. Our recovery must ensure that essential workers have more rights and are better protected from future economic shocks.”

Domestic workers, agricultural workers, street vendors, care workers, and home-based workers have suffered enormous income loss since the pandemic began in early 2020, which compounded an already difficult situation for workers who have no accumulated wealth and limited access to food if they cannot work. Myrtle Witbooi, an international pioneer in the advancement of domestic workers’ rights, saw this firsthand in South Africa.  

“We cannot fully recover or rebuild a better world if we don’t urgently and effectively protect all people, including those who work in the informal economy and make up 61 percent of the global workforce. In South Africa, this year, domestic workers have had a historic victory. We are now covered under COIDA, the compensation entitlement for when a worker is injured or falls ill while on the job. This is especially important as essential workers are at the forefront of the pandemic, but they seldom have similar protections,” said Witbooi, a former domestic worker and current president of the International Domestic Workers Federation. “A strong recovery for domestic workers, street vendors, agricultural workers, and other informal economy workers will be the linchpin for a strong global economic recovery. At the Essential for Recovery Summit, workers from around the world will unite to make an urgent call to national governments and international organizations to address our demands for better income and social protections, so we can weather this crisis and also build a better future for ourselves.” 

The Essential for Recovery Summit is hosted by the Open Society Foundations and brings together a global collective of domestic and care workers, street vendors, farm workers, labor unions, activists, and NGOs, from dozens of countries around the world who stand with essential workers. The project is led by nonprofit labor organizations— including HomeNet International, International Domestic Workers’ Federation, International Trade Union Confederation, Solidarity Center, StreetNet International, UNI Global Union, and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing.

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