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COVID-19: The fragility of workers’ rights laid bare

All over the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is revealing structural inequalities and the precarious situation that workers and communities face. For many, the economic fallout poses a crisis of its own. Yet, as governments, civil society and consumers respond, the pandemic could also be a catalyst for change. Clare Carlile explains more...

Exposing injustice

The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the precarious position of many workers worldwide. As some are forced to continue working in unsafe conditions, others are pushed into poverty, no longer able to work. These impacts are being felt the world over as demand slumps and economies head towards inevitable recession.

Garment workers

Nowhere has this been more keenly felt than in the clothing sector, with workers in UK warehouses and in factories abroad feeling the full force of the economic crisis and corporate malpractice.

Clothing factories in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Albania and Central America are closing because of public health concerns, shortages of raw material and falls in orders. Many of those employed are often immigrant workers, paid poverty wages. Many are already in debt or live off each month’s pay and will get little or nothing once their factory shuts.

The situation has been especially dire for those in Myanmar, where 90,000 workers are predicted to lose their jobs in the coming weeks. Garment workers in the country are often recent employees, because most factories have only opened in the last five years, and the turnover of workers is high.

Many are therefore not even entitled to severance pay under Burmese law, which is only granted to those who have worked beyond six months’ probation. Others will get just half a month’s salary for each year employed beyond the initial probation. Those without savings or a safety net will be forced below the poverty line.

Western clothing companies are “exacerbating the economic plight of millions of garment workers in Asia”, Human Rights Watch says. Major fast- fashion brands are cancelling orders and putting payments on hold, fuelling factory closures. Primark alone has put on hold or cancelled $273 million in orders.
New Look has suspended payments for existing stock “indefinitely”.

But these punitive supply chain relationships are not new: fast fashion relies on short-term contracts and fast turnaround times rather than long-term relationships with factories. This uncertainty is passed onto workers, as sweatshops treat their employees as disposable labour so that they can meet this perpetually fluctuating demand.

UK workers are also feeling the impacts. Online fast-fashion retailers ASOS and Boohoo have been criticised for keeping their warehouses open amidst the crisis. More than 98% of 460 ASOS workers who responded to a survey by the GMB union said that they felt unsafe working at the company’s warehouse in Barnsley.

Gig-workers and casual contracts

Although acute in the garment industry, such precarious conditions – and the serious impacts they have on workers – are being exposed all over the world.
In the UK, around 10% of workers are employed through the gig economy. Classed as ‘self-employed’, they are not entitled to sick pay, childcare pay or many of the other protections that salaried employees now rely on. A third of gig- economy workers live paycheck to paycheck each month.

Deliveroo and Uber workers in the UK and the US have said that they are having to choose between their health and covering their basic needs. Many feel forced to continue working, even where they feel unsafe or are experiencing symptoms of the virus, because they have few savings and employment rights to fall back on.

Although the UK government has announced an 80% grant to pay the self-employed, this money will not be provided until June and excludes the recently self-employed – as well as potentially being too little to cover the needs of families that rely on their monthly income.

Deliveroo has also announced a multi- million-pound Rider Support Fund “to provide our most regular riders with financial help if they need to self-isolate or are unable to work due to COVID-19”. But riders say that the company is demanding medical proof that they have contracted the virus – which is unavailable to most in the UK because testing remains scarce.

“As long as self-isolation is a privilege,” Greg Howard, a delivery driver, wrote in The Guardian in March, “there is a danger that workers will turn up for a shift when they shouldn’t with all the risks that entails.”

Those on casual contracts – many cleaners, care assistants, retail workers and others – face the same pressures. Their lack of legal rights for sick or childcare pay, or wages during enforced leave, means that they rely on the ‘goodwill’ of their employers for whether they will receive any pay during closures or self-isolation.

Already, online activists are collecting the details of companies that have penalised workers, and are planning for mass boycotts once social-distancing ends.

Amazon employees

Others that remain working for large corporations are also at the mercy of the whims of their employers.

In Italy, France and America, Amazon has seen walkouts from workers in its distribution centres who say that the company is not doing enough to protect them. Workers in New York claim that they forced a warehouse to remain closed when the company attempted to reopen it just hours after an employee there had tested positive for the virus.

“It’s an atmosphere of fear – huge fear right now”, Luismi Ruiz, a union representative who works at an Amazon facility in Spain where two workers have tested positive for the virus, told the Washington Post, “Measures are totally insufficient.”

This disregard for workers represents a public health risk as well as a personal struggle. Research suggests that COVID-19 can remain viable – able to infect a person – for 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and steel. If workers cannot self-isolate when they develop symptoms or have been exposed to someone who is ill, the virus will continue spreading.

Precarious conditions have always left casual and undervalued workers exposed during moments of individual crisis. But they now also become a visible public concern, due to the scale of the pandemic.

Left to government support

The fallout, though, will be much worse in countries where there is less public money for emergency support, and the welfare state and medical care are of a lower standard.

In India, where lockdown began in late March, 94% of the population are part of the country’s unorganised, informal industry. Many warn that soon they will have nothing to live off.

“We will run out of food in a few days,” Ramesh Kumar, who is a daily wage earner in Uttar Pradesh state, told the BBC.

The country has announced a $23 billion bailout for its poorest citizens, but this only amounts to 1% of its GDP – compared to 10% being spent by the US and Singapore on similar packages.

Shalmali Guttal from activist think tank Focus on the Global South says:

“The worst impacts of the pandemic are not only infection but also the economic, social and health impacts of the measures that governments are taking. People are going to die of hunger before they’re going to die of corona.”

Even in countries where relief packages are large, they will not be distributed evenly amongst the population. In Spain, the Prime Minister has described its $200 billion plan as the “biggest mobilisation of resources in Spain’s democratic history”.

It covers loans or credit guarantees for companies and income subsidies for affected workers. Yet, many workers will be left destitute. In the Southern regions of Huelva and Almeria, the agricultural industry relies on immigrant workers, many of whom, – an estimated 30% – are undocumented.

image: almeria southern spain building houses coronavirus pandemic
Workers in Almeria, Spain, build their home in the local settlement, amidst the coronavirus crisis.

Although farming is deemed ‘essential’, many still can’t work since Spain has introduced restrictions of two-per-vehicle and they live several miles from work, or because farms have shut down operations.

While documented migrant workers may receive some government support, those without documentation are unlikely to receive any. Many are confined to ‘shanty settlements’, with housing made of cardboard, wooden pallets and plastic from the local greenhouses, and no running water.

Amadou, from the Collective of African Workers in Huelva, says they have received no support from the government. “There are many people who have nothing to eat and no clean drinking water.”

Progressive victories

As the most precarious workers pay the price, the pandemic is already deepening inequalities. But by exposing such deep-seated structural issues, the crisis is also pushing us to address them.

The scale and severity of the pandemic has already forced governments and employers to act. Companies are voluntarily improving conditions for those on casual contracts, and governments are calling on them to ensure more flexible and safer working. Tesco, M&S, Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Lidl and Asda – usually notorious for its poor treatment of staff – are all providing at least 12 weeks’ fully paid leave to high-risk workers.

The UK government’s 80% grants for the self-employed and furloughed workers are, likewise, a progressive step towards proper security.

In some countries, industries are even being repurposed to meet vital needs. The UK’s Health Secretary has said that the government is in discussions with everyone from car manufacturers to military engineers about the possibility of switching production to medical supplies. In Detroit and China, factories that usually produce cars and trucks have been converted to make ventilators and masks.

These changes are tacit confessions: that companies and governments could and should provide better safety nets, including for casual workers; that our dirty and destructive industries could be transformed overnight to greener, more peaceful ones; and that changes which we have been told for decades were practically impossible were really only politically so.

Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now states,

“It’s our role as campaigners to point out, if you can do this when it’s acutely necessary you can do this when it’s chronically necessary.”

image: strike for fair pay workers holding banners mcdonalds wetherspoons coronavirus pandemic tgi fridays

Pushing for change

All over the UK, campaigners, civil society and grassroots movements are mobilising to ensure that these kinds of progressive changes are made.

Mutual Aid networks are creating community connections and safety nets for those that are most at risk. Groups of strangers have come together to collect food, medicine and post for others who are self-isolating or minimising their exposure. They show that alternative distribution networks are possible, with many explicitly supporting local business, including through bulk buying for communities.

Trade unions are demanding amnesty for undocumented workers in southern Spain, as well as the provision of basic human rights like running water and sanitation. Their work has been recognised as ‘essential’ and allowed to continue during the country’s lockdown. In the UK, unions are likewise allowing workers to collectivise, launching campaigns to ensure that those employed by McDonald’s, Wetherspoons and others receive 100% pay.

Across the world, civil society organisations have been hosting webinars and meetings to create new campaigns. Proposals include debt cancellation and a new ‘Corona virus survival tax’ to return some money from those profiting from crisis to the public purse.

These movements show that the pandemic could be a moment for mass mobilisation and regeneration in response to the multiple crises exposed.

War on Want says:

“It has ripped up the rule book. It must be a catalyst for systemic change, built on the principles of a safe, fair and just world ... After this, there can be no going back.”

Over the coming weeks, Ethical Consumer will be covering the problems exposed by the crisis and the amazing work that campaigners and communities are doing to tackle them – including more detail on some of the topics discussed in this article. We will be updating a list of companies to avoid due to their response to COVID-19 on our website.

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