COVID-19 and Transport Workers


Photo by Li Lin on Unsplash

Transport workers, from all the different transport sectors, bear an essential and vital role in responding to and combatting the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. Economic pressures, uncoordinated measures and outdated protocols and guidelines profoundly impact transport workers’ welfare and expose them to risks of infection. Tripartite response initiatives involving workers, employers and governments are set to protect transport workers at national and international levels.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has issued a Covid-19: ITF global demands for governments and employers, calling for immediate action in five key areas:

  • Protecting workers vital to the COVID-19 response,
  • Putting health and safety first,
  • Providing income protection for all workers,
  • Government-led stimulus to keep the economy going,
  • Maintaining sustainable supply chains.

The ITF also developed a Covid-19 knowledge center, where all transport workers can access the latest Covid-19 news, resources and guidelines. In May 2020, an ITF statement urged governments, employers and unions to initiate a gender responsive approach in combatting the pandemic in order not to exacerbate gender inequalities and protect women transport workers’ rights and welfare.


Urban Passenger Transport

Covid-19 has severely impacted the urban passenger transport sector, which had to maintain a minimum and limited-service continuity in order to transport frontline workers to their workplaces. The sector’s plummeting revenues mainly due to lower demand reflected negatively on formal operators as many have been laid off or got paid lower wages.

Distorted work schedules due to absenteeism, quarantine and isolation measures translated into longer working hours for active operators, higher risks of contracting the virus and more stressful working conditions. The most vulnerable of operators are those in the informal sector, who in some countries constitute 40 to 80 per cent of the total urban transport service workforce, and whose livelihoods depend on their daily labor. They are often outside the social dialogue and therefore unable to benefit from the social protection and financial stimulus formal workers enjoy. The Covid-19 pandemic is therefore an opportunity to move forward with the International Labor Organization (ILO) Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy Recommendation, 2015 (No. 204) and a chance to strengthen the implementation of the ITF’s Informal Transport Workers’ Charter.

International responses to combat these negative implications were put in place. The International Association of Public Transport (UITP) developed an information webpage displaying briefs, factsheets and expert discussion exchanges where workers can gain vital information on the pandemic. It also published several guidelines suggesting preparedness measures and personal protection protocols. In an April 2020 podcast, UITP Secretary General Mohamed Mezghani thoroughly discussed the challenges of maintaining the sector’s services while at the same time protecting workers. A Guardian of Mobility campaign explored personal stories from the sector’s workers and displayed the crucial work they are performing. 

Photo by Ryan Tang on Unsplash

Specifically targeting the urban transport sector, the ITF issued a Global charter of demands that identifies the exposure to the Covid-19 risk at the workplace as an occupational health and safety issue. It also issued, in line with its 2019 Sanitation Charter, a Guidance for trade union negotiators which identifies key areas for better action by transport employers, investors and governments. The World Health Organization (WHO) on the other hand, released a comprehensive publication with the main objective to ensure the health and safety of both passengers and urban transport workers in the context on Covid-19.

Different types of responses and conformity to international regulations could be measured in different parts of the world. In Africa for instance, a report by the World Bank and the Africa Transport Policy Program (SSATP) depicts the pandemic response initiatives in major African cities with public transport systems. An NTV Kenya video shows boda-boda riders and passengers conforming to Covid-19 hygiene guidelines, whereas a VOA News article reports measures taken in Uganda like taking passengers’ temperatures and keeping their credentials for infection tracing. Another article describes the installation of plastic shields between drivers and passengers to reduce physical contact among them.


Road Freight Transport

The road transport sector, particularly long-distance freight transport, is another key and essential sector to combatting the pandemic. It also is heavily burdened by operational and economic pressures and States’ domestic/international transit restrictions, which translated into harsher work and financial conditions for independent and self-employed truck drivers as well as small and medium-sized transport enterprises.

When crossing borders, drivers are experiencing longer waiting times, uncoordinated border measures and compulsory Covid-19 testing and quarantines. A CBC News video reports truck drivers being denied access to sanitation facilities at borders, and even the possibility to buy fresh water and coffee. Drivers carrying freight from Kenya to Uganda, Rwanda and other African countries sometimes wait up to two weeks before their Covid-19 test results are ready, as per a VOA News article. Mobile applications and other innovative solutions are being introduced, for instance a common electronic Covid-19 certificate accepted by border authorities in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda which significantly reduce waiting times, as described in this DW video.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) developed a 10-point action plan to facilitate the transport and trade of goods in times of Covid-19, whereas the International Transport Forum at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (ITF-OECD) developed a brief of non-exhaustive policies that aim to maintain vital mobility of people and transport of goods in a Covid-19 safe manner. Jointly, the ITF and International Road Transport Union (IRU) developed a statement calling governments and international bodies to designate the road transport sector as an essential sector in combatting the pandemic.

The IRU developed a Covid-19 information hub where it posts regular updates on transport workers and businesses conditions and published a list of recommendations for truck drivers surveying hygiene protocols and guidelines in case of Covid-19 symptoms. The pandemic also pushes for a stronger implementation of the ILO’s Guidelines on the promotion of decent work and road safety in the transport sector which apply to the freight transport sector and truck drivers.

In India, the All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC) is lobbying the government to provide financial stimulus for truck drivers, as reported in this article, whereas in Africa, a report depicts truck drivers in the SADC-EAC-COMESA region highly satisfied with the amended Covid-19 guidelines which aim to protect them while at work.


Rail Transport

The rail sector is also suffering from an unprecedented financial crisis due to Covid-19, with losses amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars. Railway workers, on the frontline, to keep the sector’s cargo and passenger services moving, experienced heightened pressures and risks of infection, and had to adapt their work to new guidelines and protocols to keep themselves and others safe.

The International Union of Railways (UIC) set up a Covid-19 Taskforce comprising UIC member companies and other stakeholders and created a Covid-19 information center as a trusted space to share the latest information, articles, webinars and other written and audio material. The task force also published numerous guideline papers to assess the pandemic’s impact on the sector and its workers and propose preparedness measures. In a joint statement, the UIC, UITP, ITF and the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) urged governments and trade unions for proactive measures in order for the Covid-19 health crisis not to develop into a social one.



The pandemic substantially impacted the civil aviation sector as well. Travel bans, flight cancellations and more stringent air travel measures were put in place to curb the spread of the virus worldwide. The sector’s significant financial losses impacted employment directly in the form of lay-offs, reduction in numbers of work-hours and forced paid and unpaid leaves. An International Air Transport Association (IATA) press release estimates a USD 85 billion drop in the Middle East’s GDP supported by aviation. In Africa, more than 3.1 million jobs in aviation and related industries could be lost, as explained in a CNBCAfrica panel discussion. In other countries like Thailand and Malaysia, the long-term viability of the aviation sector is at risk, an ALJAZEERA article shows.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) developed an extensive information hub for Covid-19 measures and guidelines, and CAPSCA, the 2006 Collaborative Arrangement for the Prevention and Management of Public Health Events in Civil Aviation developed a Covid-19 official page compiling Covid-19 resources from the major international and regional organizations. The WHO published an interim guidance raising awareness for aviation personnel, promoting cleaning and disinfection protocols and providing support in events of suspected Covid-19 cases among workers or passengers.

The existing Emergency Response Plan and Action Checklist developed by IATA is applicable for combatting Covid-19, and a new Crew health precautions during pandemic Guidance was published in May 2020. Similarly, a Covid-19 Guidance for Crews by the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) recommends strategies for crew members at work. An ITF Aviation demands action to address the impact of COVID-19 particularly calls upon governments and aviation employers to identify Covid-19 risks faced by aviation workers and implement immediate workplace responses to them.



The enormous pressures on the maritime shipping sector are reflecting immediately to seafarers experiencing unprecedented work conditions, which affects both their physical and mental health and their familial relationships. A UN News article called them “collateral victims” of Covid-19 measures. They often cannot board ships or get trapped on board and cannot get access to port-based welfare services for fear of contagion. They are forced to extended quarantines before they could go home and they are denied the right to go ashore even for medical treatments. A BBC NEWS video documents the story of an Indian sailor, stuck on board like other thousands of Indian seafarers, due to strict Covid-19 port measures.

Some ships are quarantined off the coast before granting them entry to port and are restricted from receiving essential provisions including medical supplies, fresh water and fuel. Cases of ship abandonments by ship-owners are rising due to deteriorating financial conditions and seafarers are left stranded in foreign ports. The ITF and The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) prepared a joint letter to UN Agencies calling for the facilitation of the movement and changeover of seafarers in order to keep maritime trade moving. In February 2021, the ILO released a comprehensive Information note on maritime labour issues and coronavirus (COVID-19).

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) provides on its Covid-19 webpage a compilation of plans to address the impacts of the pandemic on shipping workers, including protocols to ensure safe ship crew changes. The IMO Council also calls flag and port states to protect the welfare of maritime workers and ensure their rights to basic food and medical supplies and assistance, sick leaves and wages. South Africa responded to IMO’s calls by easing some Covid-19 measures on seafarers, for instance by granting extensions to seafarers’ certificates, a July 2020 article shows. The Philippines issued Board Resolutions recognizing seafarers as key workers, and so did a Nigerian guideline exempting seafarers from travel restrictions.