Frontline supermarkets: unions team up with businesses to boost Austria’s COVID-19 containment efforts

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Austria is in lockdown but its supermarkets are anything but. Ensuring that people have safe access to essential goods is central to our collective efforts to contain COVID-19. That’s why GPA-djp trade union and businesses are together ramping up containment measures in supermarkets across the country.

Safe shops for all

A new agreement has entered into force on Monday 23 March which lays out the plan. It places a major focus on boosting sanitary provisions with extraordinary measures. From infrastructural improvements like installing breath protection plexiglass panes at the check-out till, to the provision of protective equipment, the agreement takes meaningful steps towards making shops safe for all. In addition, customer access times have been adjusted and measures have been put in place to ensure safe distances are respected.

Protecting those most at risk has been another pillar of effective contagion efforts and the agreement lays out concrete measures to apply that principle across the retail sector. It provides paid leave for pregnant workers for the duration of the crisis and ensures that workers with pre-existing conditions are not in direct customer contact (full summary of measures below).

Not just the lucky few

The measures that this agreement lays out cover all supermarkets. This breadth of coverage is only made possible by the strong sectoral collective bargaining laws in Austria. Collective bargaining agreements provide an additional layer of adaptability on top of the measures taken at governmental level.

“This is exactly the sort of response our communities need and it will save lives. Unions and businesses are working together to provide solutions tailored to frontline workplaces. The fact that these emergency measures apply to all workplaces and not just to those with higher standards is truly building Austria’s resilience to the Coronavirus crisis,” said Oliver Roethig, Regional Secretary of UNI Europa.

While similar measures have recently been brought in in neighbouring Hungary, they only concern a single chain of supermarkets. This is due to the fact that sectoral collective bargaining is not yet established as law there. As a result, only 20 percent of workers are covered by these sectoral bargaining rights in Hungary. In contrast, 95 percent of workers are covered in Austria, allowing for these emergency workplace measures to be brought in for all, not just for a minority.

Varying responses to the COVID-19 highlight how the trust that well-established labour relations builds also results in more resilient and responsive workplaces. At Amazon, the company’s notorious union-busting approach has driven a conflictual relationship between workers and the corporation. In the current crisis, workers have continued to be exposed and ultimately had to resolve to strike action in Italy to push things forward.

“When workers have more of a voice, emergency measures are more quickly adapted when their communities are at risk. We already knew collective bargaining is core to ensuring the rewards are shared in times of prosperity, now we see that it also acts as a rampart and ensures that responses cover everyone, not just a lucky few, in times of crisis. Going forward, Europe must take note of this and bolster collective bargaining,” said Oliver Roethig.

Summary of the agreement in Austria

Tailoring federal governments’ recently introduced regulations to the commerce sector, the Austria agreement covers additional commitments by the retail employers:

  • The stores will be closed at latest 19:00 so that workers can have enough rest and shelves can be safely and properly refilled, respecting social distancing advice. Additionally, this facilitates the organisation of childcare for those workers who rely on it.
  • The changing shopping behaviours will be closely reviewed, and the working hours will be adjusted accordingly.
  • Pregnant workers will be specially protected to avoid a possible risk to the health of mother and/or child. All companies are requested to give pregnant women paid leave of absence.
  • At-risk workers including employees with chronic illnesses, respiratory or lung diseases including COPD, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, high blood pressure and diseases and therapies that weaken the immune system will no longer be employed in the workstations with direct customer contact.
  • While many companies agreed to pay workers additional monetary benefits for their commitment and high workload; the Federal Government is called to exempt these “Corona allowances / premiums” from social security premiums and tax so that workers can be fully compensated.
  • The retail employers will apply following measures to protect employees and standardize preventive precautions at sectoral level:
    • Plexiglass panes (“breath protection”) and spacers at all cash desks and counters.
    • Gloves and hand disinfectants for all employees and apprentices
    • Regular disinfection of cash desk workstations, break and recreation rooms as well as toilet facilities through shorter intervals during cleaning
    • Floor markings at all cash desks and counters to ensure that customers are kept at a distance from each other and that the store is run in an orderly manner
    • No scanning of customer cards by employees
    • Access to all stores should be regulated during peak times in order to ensure order in the stores and to avoid high number of customers at stores in the event of high customer traffic

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