Thinking differently and acting collectively during Corona Pandemic, a message from Andres Hemsing, National Chairman of the German komba trade union

The last few weeks have seen much of how we do things turned on its head. The coronavirus pandemic is having a massive effect on our lives. We’re having to think on our feet a lot, because that’s what sudden, unprecedented situations do – they challenge us. Below, Andres Hemsing (National Chairman of the komba trade union), offers a glimpse into various areas of work and life in Germany.

How can one sum up the last few weeks? Uncertainty, lots of questions, a dynamic state of play, challenges across the board and, in spite of everything, especially in this age of social distancing, people coming together in many places and showing solidarity to one another.  

We can rely on the public sector  

What does the current situation show? That we can rely on the public sector. In many areas, the public sector is keeping the country running at a time when corona is calling the shots. They run the infrastructure, meaning they are under additional pressure at a time like this. Wherever we look in this shared world of ours, it’s our colleagues who are doing their bit to ensure that people stay healthy and that public life goes on.  

It’s the medical and care workers, our colleagues in health administration, crisis management, local and regional administration, the fire and rescue sectors, educators and those who maintain public order, who are responsible for making sure everything keeps running. Many are reaching their limits. For this, we owe them a debt of gratitude. But the thing they need most right now is strength, perseverance and their health. All – employees and citizens alike – must show consideration for others. The smallest act can make the biggest impact.  

Working in the age of corona  

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted weaknesses. The lack of staff in many parts of the public sector is now glaringly obvious. This has been apparent for quite some time. Here, it’s time to play an active role in turning this around, once corona is behind us. Everyone ought to have registered by now how important a good, secure network of professionals is.  

Something people have now grasped is this: we need to make greater strides when it comes to digitisation. This situation shows us that processes of change can be speeded up. Pretty much overnight, IT equipment and modes of digital communication were no longer a theoretical construct, but rather a reality. And it’s a reality which reveals prevailing deficits. The available infrastructure often sets limits upon mobile working, even if this style of working is definitely possible in some jobs.  

Now is the time to learn from our experiences of these weeks, examine them closely, ask honest, enquiring questions – also with regard to how we can avoid a further blurring of the borders between work  and rest time, and seek compatibility – and shine a light on naturally unavoidable reasons which can restrict mobile working, such as how we deal with data protection regulations. This must then give rise to measures which we in the komba trade union follow attentively and actively.  

Working at the moment is an endurance test. Not everyone is able to work from home. For many, their job is no longer secure. More than ever, the labour market is facing enormous challenges. Some employers have now registered for short-term work. As wages sink, living costs remain constant for those affected by the shift to short-term work.  This is why all states must top up the reduced hours compensation to cover workers’ running costs.  

An arrangement for the public sector has now been reached. Collective agreements have hitherto contained no basis for short-term work. Nevertheless, the Works Constitution Act, and in some of the German Länder, staff representation acts, already make such agreements possible. This is why the present situation made a uniform, national arrangement, which also heeded the need for equality, a must. That being said, the COVID-19 collective agreement which has now been reached, and which is intended to be used as a nationwide arrangement for short-term work in the public sector, only applies to certain, pre-agreed areas and the particular case of coronavirus. Consequently, it definitely doesn’t give people a free ride for the future.  

Health system: abuses are becoming glaringly obvious  

Across the health and care sector, staffing is incredibly stretched. Even on a typical working day, it cannot be said that staff are well equipped and given a fair workload. Staff continue to give their all, making sure that people get what they need. Applause alone, even if they undoubtedly deserve it, is not enough. The problem in the health sector has been apparent for quite some time. In several debates over pay, we have pointed out that shortages exist in the health department; that those in charge have lost sight of what it means to be a doctor or carer. There are too many unoccupied posts in the health sector, and this is something which becomes apparent in a crisis such as this one. It is to be hoped that employers learn the right lessons from this and finally improve the income and working conditions of those working in this field. 

Childcare arrangements 

Those working in nurseries are currently making an important contribution towards getting through this crisis. They are looking after the children of key workers, so that infrastructure can keep running. We are keeping an eye on how safe and protected those working in childcare facilities are and are paying close attention to the rules.  

What’s more, public sector employees have been having to find flexible solutions concerning childcare since the nurseries and schools closed their doors. Until now, they had been entitled to a maximum of 3 working days to look after their children. Local employers spoke up about this and now more generous provisions for leave, which go beyond the standard arrangements, are permitted. 

What is going on with the 2020 pay scale developments? 

Talks for those working in social care and education had only just begun. Collective bargaining rounds are due to take place in the summer for local transport and for government and local authority employees. When, and in what form, negotiations will once again be possible is a question to which no reliable answer can be given at this point in time. The collective bargaining parties remain in close contact. 

Komba trade union work and coronavirus   

All areas of komba trade union’s work had, until now, packed agendas. Now, all events, seminars and meetings have been called off, provisionally until the end of May. That being said, we are still manning the office – from home and on site – and we’re dealing with our members’ enquiries. Consultations on the part of the executive board also continue, albeit in a new format. Rather than gather around a table, our members recently met virtually. Naturally, the focal point of the discussion was the effect of coronavirus.  

In all areas, we can see that we need to think outside the box and that we can only do so by working together. All are called upon to think collectively and act decisively in order to find solutions fit for all. This goes for the whole of Europe. 

Stay well! 

Andres Hemsing 

National Chairman of the German komba trade union

CESI Trade Council ‘Defence’ (DEF)