Covid 19 & State of Emergency: Lessons of Georgetown

  • Guilherme Dray
  • 14 April 2020

Everything must be done to fight the social effects of this crisis. Governments, companies and trade unions should work together.

I had the pleasure of having been Visiting Professor at the University of Georgetown in Washington DC.

Founded in 1789, Georgetown is today one of the most vibrant American universities and on a global scale. A University which cultivates tolerance and freedom of spirit and creativity.

Georgetown is a magnificent neighborhood with late 18th-century villas, plenty of local commerce and small restaurants. A neighborhood located on top of a hill that overlooks the majestic Potomac River and from where you can see, on a vast plain, the State of Virginia.

Last week, Georgetown and the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor organized a Webinar, entitled, “Labor and COVID 19: An International Perspective”.

With representatives from the United States of America, Europe and Asia, the main concerns that this pandemic brings and the measures that different countries are taking around employment have been presented.

The following conclusions were presented:

  • We are living in a unique moment on a global scale that affects both rich and poor countries.
  • The pandemic will inevitably bring a serious social crisis and the exponential rise in unemployment, on a scale comparable to that of the great depression of 1919.
  • Like the New Deal, which at the time tackled the great depression in an innovative way, we need a new social contract to protect small business owners, workers, migrants and independent contractors.
  • States shall establish, if possible, at international level, a Contingency Fund enabling those who do not have access to social security protection net, particularly emigrants and self-employed persons.
  • The protection of workers should be extended to the precarious gig economy ‘contractors.
  • Telework should be encouraged and a new “right of adaptation” promoted: the work must be adapted in such a way as to avoid risks of contagion.
  • States should focus on employment protection mechanisms, whether through part-time work or Lay Off, helping companies to maintain jobs and pay salaries.
  • Workers should be given accompanying rights for children and elderly, and health professionals at the front line be particularly protected through personal protective equipment.
  • On a temporary basis, rules should be created to make dismissal difficult for up to 3 months after the end of the first wave of the epidemic.
  • Trade unions and companies should promote “collective bargaining for the common good”, seeking to extend the benefits negotiated for the workers to the whole community, including help to the unemployed.
  • Austerity policies focused on raising taxes and reducing wages should be avoided.

The need for freedoms that have been restricted in the future has also been recalled. And that’s a good starting point to recall the Portuguese case.

On the one hand, it is important to quickly recover the right to strike, which in Portugal was suspended by the President of the Republic’s decree of state of emergency. The right to strike is a constitutional right and enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is part of our values, ensuring harmony and balance to the system. Right to strike and free collective bargaining should be back as soon as possible.

On the other hand, it is also important to reactivate the private economic initiative, partially suspended through the presidential decrees. I recall the power to suspend firing exceptionally given by the Government to the Agency Department of Labor Issues. The current concern in this context of crisis is understood. However, if after the end of this exception period, we must resume to normality:  the suspension of dismissals is desirable, yes, but only when decreed by a judicial authority. The suspension of firings by an administrative state agency may bring generates arbitrariness, affects the separation of powers and is a potential for arrogance that should be avoided at all costs.

The conclusions are therefore clear: everything must be done to fight the social effects of this crisis. Governments, companies and trade unions should work together.

At the end of this period, freedoms must be fully recovered: freedom of movement, association and unionism, as well as the right to strike and free business management.

These are Lessons of Georgetown.

  • Guilherme Dray
  • is a Lawyer and Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Lisbon (FDUL)