[OPINION] From hospitals to farms and forests: Stand with our frontline workers

This Friday may be the most significant Labor Day that humanity will commemorate in recent history. Labor Day this year bears witness to workers on the front lines leading the global fight against the existential crisis that is the coronavirus pandemic

More than 3 million people across the globe have been afflicted by the dreaded COVID-19 disease. Health care systems of various countries have been overloaded by the surge of patients. More than half of the world has been put under lockdown by governments desperately scrambling to contain the virus’ spread. In the Philippines, we are facing the worst unemployment and income loss slump our nation has ever experienced in history. 

But workers are holding the line. Across the many battlefronts where the war against COVID-19 is being waged, it is the various workers who are risking their lives to deliver the basic needs and services for the sick, hungry, and vulnerable. (READ: Over 1 million Filipino workers displaced due to coronavirus)

From the front line to the back line

On the front line, we have health workers who continue to take care of patients, administer tests, and research for cures and other innovative interventions despite facing transportation challenges, suffering shortages in personal protective equipment, and facing the highest infection rates in the entire West-Pacific region.

On the back line, we have service workers delivering essential goods and services to entire communities staying at home. Despite being exposed daily to the risk of contracting the disease, they continue to serve in stores, public markets, banks, delivery systems, and other skeletal public services. (READ: Groups slam 'grossly anti-poor' measures for labor during Metro Manila lockdown)

Let us not forget the small farmers, farm workers, and fisherfolk who are all working to make sure there is a sufficient supply of agricultural produce to help communities overcome hunger and malnutrition. They are doing so while suffering the lack of aid themselves.

Environment, an emerging battleground

We also want to bring attention to the workers who fight COVID-19 in the emerging battleground that is the environment. Garbage collectors and other sanitation workers are making sure potentially infectious waste are gathered, treated, and disposed properly even as they lack protective equipment and sufficient hazard compensation.

With no government mass disinfection measures for municipal waste where healthcare waste has been indiscriminately mixed, sanitation workers are exposed to 44,000 tons of waste generated daily that is now likely COVID-19 contagion as well. 

There are also our forest rangers and other environmental defenders, fighting to keep at bay present and future emerging infectious diseases, 70% of which have originated from wildlife, by keeping them dormant and diluted in intact forest ecosystems. Their work is crucial not only to combat these zoonotic diseases, but also to preserve the watershed forests that ensure adequate water for public sanitation.

Unfortunately, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) itself has admitted that the ideal ratio of its employed forest rangers to protected area coverage is 1 is to 700 hectares, but the current workforce constitutes a far cry of 1 is to 7,021 hectares. Government forest rangers, much like other workers, are also inadequately paid and compensated for the hazards of their work.

Real-world action

More than sentiments and words, Filipino workers need PPEs, adequate food nutrition, social amelioration, job security, and guaranteed services such as transportation and housing. They need real, concrete action. We think the best way to stand with workers is to join them in relentlessly holding accountable government, the primary duty bearer in guaranteeing the welfare of workers in these times of crisis.

Let us not tire in demanding the Duterte administration to speed up its Social Amelioration Program, which has yet to reach 10 million worker and informal earner households still in need. Likewise, only 3.6% of the 9.7 million producers affected by the quarantines have received financial assistance. The impacts are so drastic that workers and farmers will likely require sustained assistance long after the quarantines have been lifted. (READ: [OPINION] New normal? Better normal!)

Let us urge the Department of Health to employ more health professionals and to improve their provision of safety assistance and sufficient compensation to all COVID-19 responders. Let us do the same to DENR – to equip sanitation workers better, to hire more forest rangers and environmental enforcers, and to give them living wages.

For now, let us take to social media – the broadest unity of trade unions are waving the #RedLaborDay2020 banner this Labor Day on Twitter and Facebook. In the coming weeks, let us prepare to join workers from hospitals to farms and down to forests, for real-world action as the community quarantine measures gradually eases. – Rappler.com

Leon Dulce is the national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE). Kalikasan PNE is a convening organization of the Citizens’ Urgent Response to End COVID-19 (CURE COVID), a national people’s initiative of various communities and sectors in response to the pandemic crisis and its impacts on their health and livelihood.