Social dialogue in a time of pandemic

In Belgium, as everywhere, one of the earliest reactions to lockdown from people was a rush on the supermarkets — particularly for toilet paper. Just as physical distancing rules were being implemented, supermarkets were being flooded with people each day, a risk to the shoppers themselves and particularly the workers.

This article belongs to the series “FROM THE FRONT LINE: Workers their share stories of trade union activism on today’s most important labour issues”.

 At the European Trade Union Institute, we are collecting some personal stories about trade unionists and their campaigns to publish on our website as part of a series named ‘From the Frontline’. The idea is to demonstrate the links between our research and the issues that affect workers and trade unions every day. Contact us at info@etui.org if you want to share your personal story.

Article by Nicky Boon. 

Nicky Boon is a trade union representative in one of the large Belgian supermarket chains, Colruyt. Here, she shares her experience of the first crucial days of the lockdown period and explains how good company-level social dialogue helped her and her colleagues to surf the waves of the corona crisis instead of being drowned by them.

Friday 6 March 2020: The COVID pandemic is coming to Europe, but a total lockdown still seems far-fetched in most people’s minds. Nevertheless, there are a few who are already preparing. One shopper, troubled enough to be wearing gloves, tells me: “Watch my words, something is coming very soon.” In the health and safety committee we ask the management about possible scenarios in case a pandemic strikes. They don’t seem to be alarmed by the prospect, simply saying: “We will follow the guidelines of the Ministry of Health”.

Fast-forward one week later, to Thursday 12 March: the atmosphere is tense. The day started as any other but the shop is becoming more crammed by the minute and so are the shopping carts. By the late afternoon the situation is critical. It’s a sink or swim situation but we’re managing. The trade union contacts management for an urgent consultation: we need space and time to keep the aisles organised and, above all, clean.

From that day on, I start arriving at work at 6am. I don’t leave until 4pm: considerably longer than my normal hours, but we feel another storm is coming. There’s an amazing solidarity between colleagues. The whole day we work like crazy, but we do so shoulder to shoulder (metaphorically of course). In a union meeting with the management, we reach an agreement on some future policies. Working time will be extended in the morning and the evening to prepare and clean the supermarkets. Paid, of course, and with an overtime bonus. Employees will also get an additional bonus for their extra effort. We also start to discuss how to control the masses in the shops and decide that we will meet weekly to assess and adapt.

Saturday 14 March: All the toilet paper, pasta, canned food and soap are sold out. While there is enough in stock, there’s no way to get it to all the shops in time.

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