Risks on the labour market in 2020 magnified by COVID

Working with a colleague who has a bad cold but is afraid to call in sick. Colleagues sitting too close together in the canteen, without the company’s management intervening. These are a few examples of the types of COVID-related reports the Inspectorate SZW received in 2020, about 7,700 in total.

The processing of these reports shows that most employers take the COVID measures seriously. However, there is room for improvement when it comes to implementation in the workplace. Our inspectors took action in more than 2,200 cases to make the working conditions COVID-proof and to limit the risk of infection.

Inspector General Marc Kuipers: “We had already come across an accumulation of risks of unhealthy, unsafe and unfair work among employees with a vulnerable labour market position. COVID has magnified these problems, especially among workers who perform low-paid work, on a flexible basis. This group is particularly affected by the consequences of COVID.”

One group that particularly stands out are migrant workers. Twenty percent of the reports about infection risks in the workplace concerned them. The reports, inspections but also the many conversations that inspectors had with them show the complex and restrictive position in which migrant workers find themselves. The vast majority of them depend on employment agencies. For work, but also for housing and commuting. Many of them have a temporary employment contract, which can be cancelled any day. In 2020, the Inspectorate’s efforts for these groups focused on combating COVID hot spots and underpayment. Special attention was given to sectors where many migrant workers work, such as the meat-processing industry, parcel delivery and agriculture and horticulture.

The virus has drastic consequences for the labour market and thus for the field of activity of the Inspectorate SZW in a broad sense. Apart from risks of infection in the workplace, overload in sectors where pressure is increasing and new risks due to working from home, the Inspectorate has identified a risk of a decline in income and a greater dependency on facilities. All of this also has consequences for the working method of the Inspectorate SZW. For example, inspections by telephone or video contact appeared to be sufficient in certain situations and for certain types of companies. This created room for on-site inspections where necessary. More intensive and tailor-made communication, for example via social media, proved to work well for employers who are obliging but lack knowledge. And there were other forms of collaboration, with new partners. For example, the Inspectorate made a considerable contribution to the Migrant Workers Booster Team, the Inspectors collaborated with the safety regions in inspections in the meat-processing industry and the Inspectorate participated in the Migrant Workers and COVID-19 Collaboration Platform.

The differentiated approach to industrial accidents was launched in 2020. Sometimes, investing in safety yields more than imposing a fine. In the case of accidents in which the casualty suffers minor injuries, our inspectors can decide to have the employer draw up an improvement plan to prevent a recurrence of an accident. Various sectors have also asked for more attention to prevention by complying with occupational health and safety obligations, such as having a Risk Inventory and Evaluation (RI&E) and an action plan to combat risks.

See for more information the Foreword of the 2020 Annual Report Inspectorate SZW.