Covid-19: Workers and factories - What are the risks and what do they need?

Most garment workers face a double threat – to their lives and livelihoods. On the one hand, they must protect themselves from contracting the virus; on the other hand, they need to work in the factories to feed themselves and their families. Factories are faced with both government measures and behaviour of customers that negatively impact them. This can lead to factories making quick and drastic decisions which have a huge impact on worker lives.  Now more than ever, social dialogue is of utmost importance. Workers need to be informed, consulted and kept aware in regard to the impact on their own terms and conditions of employment and as to the steps they can take for their own protection and contribution to the containment of the virus.

The majority of garment workers are women, often young and migrant, working under temporary contracts or in the informal work sector; they are concentrated in low-pay, low power positions and underrepresented in unions. Due to the norms around community caregiving, women do more unpaid labour, including childcare, home care and elder care. They are also often the ones to take care of the sick, both in the family and in the community. During COVID-19, this put them at a particular risk, not only for their immediate health but also for their long-term financial situation.  Without social services that adequately financially reimburse or recognise this unpaid labour, women will be hit particularly hard.

For workers, one of the biggest impacts of the pandemic is on their wages.

  • In many garment producing countries, factories are forced to (temporarily) stop production:  because they are forced to do so by their governments, because workers are quarantined, or because they lose orders due to problems further down the supply chain (e.g. shops closing, limits on transportation). During such stoppages, many workers are without income. 
  • Even if local governments require employers to pay workers regular wages during work stoppage, workers might not get what they are legally owed. For example, most garment workers in China and Eastern Europe are paid by piece-rate. They may not receive any pay since there was no work.  

Sudden termination, lack of severance pay, inadequate social security, and health insurance

  • Many factories face bankruptcy. Governments may not have measures in place to help them.  Workers will thus not get their dues and may not even be given notice. In China, there have also been cases in which a factory did not go bankrupt, but workers were still fired because the employers could not pay wages during work stoppage. The factories may eventually hire them back, but the workers will have lost their wages and severance pay. Temporary workers without proper contracts, which are predominantly women, are especially at risk. They will be the first ones told to stop working. In cases where workers are not fired, they may be forced to take unpaid or annual leave.
  • Many workers are not covered under social security or health insurance. If they contract COVID-19, they will not have enough money to pay for treatment. Many manufacturing countries do not have the healthcare infrastructure needed to deal with a pandemic of this scale, and workers lack access to basic medical care. When there is no paid sick leave or pay during quarantine, there can be an increased risk. If an infected worker goes to work, he/she will infect others; if he/she does not go to work, he/she will suffer financially.
  • Some workers access their health care through their employer. Losing their jobs or stopping work may end their access to health care. This is especially dangerous for those workers who rely on factory nurses to provide their healthcare. During a pandemic, workers may lose access to services deemed ‘non-essential’ such as sexual and reproductive healthcare and maternity care.
  • It is foreseeable that we will be in a global recession for some time because of COVID-19. Women, many of whom left the labour force during COVID-19, may find it difficult to re-enter. Previous crises have shown that, financially, men recover much quicker than women. COVID-19 will not only increase women’s care burdens but will have a longer-term effect on women’s economic empowerment.

Besides the risk of losing income, workers also face a higher risk of unsafe workplaces and a huge risk of infection as they work at labour-intensive factories.

  • Many factories do not have a good ventilation system. Workstations are usually very close to one another. There is sometimes a lack of facilities for workers to wash their hands frequently. Even if the factory has proper handwashing facilities, there is no guarantee they will let workers take time to wash their hands. Where workers are paid on piece rate, they may not want to take the necessary hand-washing breaks.
  • Many garment factories provide face masks against dust – as they should. These will not always block the corona virus but may give a false sense of security that increases the risk of infection.
  • As COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, workers living and working in highly polluted areas, and who lack access to clean water and soap, are at an increased risk for contracting the virus.
  • Often workers use crowded forms of transportation in order to travel to and from work. Factories that remain open should take this into account.
  • If the government does not pay for the testing and most workers do not have health insurance or paid sick leave, a worker with mild flu-like symptoms must go to work. This worsens the worker’s condition, while also increasing the risk of spreading infection.
  • Many schools and daycares are closed, and families are without childcare.  This puts workers in a position where they are faced with the choice of who stays home to watch the children. This predominately falls to women, which has financial effects for them, but also has a risk factor for the other partner who now might have to work extra hours or take on increasingly precarious work in order to continue supporting the family. This situation is especially difficult for single parents, which are mostly women, who have no support with childcare, and yet must still work in order to provide for the family. Without resources, they may be compelled to put themselves or their family in dangerous situations.
  • Piling up of material or goods that have a delay in shipment, create a severe fire safety risk.

While excessive overtime may be unlikely, it can still be a risk (especially in China) as the situation improves.

  • In countries where factories remain open but workers with flu-like symptoms are not allowed to work, or where workers are still looking after children or sick relatives, the limited capacity of the reduced workforce may lead to excessive overtime.
  • Due to the massive shutdown of Chinese factories, the supply of raw material can fluctuate. The CMT factories might not be able to make their production plans properly. As a result of this and potential work stoppage, urgent excessive overtime can occur.
  • At a later stage, when factories can open, excessive overtime is very likely to happen. The factories might have to catch up for working days lost during the restriction period. 

Risk of violence and harassment against women and men in the world of work

  • Workplace violence and harassment, especially against female garment workers, is prevalent in garment factories. Research has demonstrated that the combination of low wages and excessive overtime increases incidences of violence and harassment. During COVID-19, and in the period after, these risk factors will be particularly prevalent, as workers recover from the economic loss and cope with fluctuates in work that can lead to excessive overtime and disruptions in regular income.
  • Additionally, during pandemics, the stress that many workers face at home and in the factory, particularly when experiencing economic insecurity, leads to an increase in incidences of intimate partner violence. Likewise, workplace stress is also related to higher levels of workplace harassment and assault, especially verbal harassment and sexual harassment. This is most often worse for those who are in the most vulnerable positions – women, migrants, younger workers, gender non-conforming, ethnic minorities. Moreover, in some countries, workers are stranded in hostels, which heightens their risk to violence and harassment.
  • The power imbalances between the predominantly male managerial and supervisory staff and the female garment workers are exacerbated by a situation where workers fear losing their jobs; this can create the potential for quid pro quo sexual harassment. These vulnerable workers may feel unable to refuse unwanted sexual advances to protect their job or to ensure they are given hours/paid for the hours they worked.
  • Migrant workers travelling home, or mass layoffs of factory workers, can create an environment where workers are travelling long distances (in some cases by foot). In other crises, migrant women in particular, have experienced an increase in sexual violence when on the move.
  • Workers who lose their jobs suddenly and without pay, will be at-risk for extreme forms of exploitation including human trafficking, scam recruitment offers, and sexual exploitation.

Fair Wear has country sheets with country-specific information on government policies, legislation regarding the protection of workers, and local initiatives that support and protect workers. You can find all of this information here.