The latest wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is currently wreaking havoc across South Asia. With hundreds of thousands of new cases and thousands of deaths being reported daily, India’s healthcare system is collapsing under the weight of the number and severity of the new cases with hospital beds and oxygen for critical patients in short supply. Throughout India, families are struggling to find the care necessary to save their sick relatives and people are dying in their homes, in the hospitals, and in the streets due to lack of medical attention. The failure of the Union Government to prepare for this eventuality has left every level of Indian society in pandemic-related freefall and which is now resulting in the surge spreading to other South Asian nations.
For garment workers, who already faced disparities in health care before the start of the pandemic, the current situation is especially dire. During the first wave, garment workers not only faced lack of regular access to healthcare, but also economic ruin when their factories closed under one of the most draconian lockdowns in the world. Without access to their normal wages or any significant social security, workers faced abject destitution in addition to the physical ravages of the virus. Many workers also dealt with homelessness, as their company dormitories closed and they were unable to make rent, or hunger, as migrant workers were often not entitled to food support in the cities where they worked. This led to a mass exodus of workers from India’s industrial cities back to their home villages, often on foot, with workers dying during the journey and bringing Covid with them if they managed to make it back to their ancestral homes.
Currently, as many factories remain open, garment workers are faced with an untenable decision between continuing to show up for work and risk contracting Covid or staying home and going hungry. Many garment factories are continuing to operate at full capacity through this latest surge. Rules however differ per state and in garment hub Karnataka, for example, factories are operating at 50% capacity. If workers do not show up for their jobs, they risk being fired and losing their only form of income. Unfortunately, due to decades of lack of investments from international brands and local factory owners, Indian garment factories are riddled with occupational safety and health risks, and, additionally, often do not provide sufficient hygienic facilities to prevent infection. If workers are required to come to the factory during the pandemic, many will fall ill and will die. Staying at home, on the other hand, means inevitable hunger, with migrant workers among those hit hardest.
Action by apparel companies is needed
The situation facing garment workers is indefensible. The very workers on whose back the industry is built should not have to choose between destitution and death. International garment corporations must use their extensive resources, as well as their influence with local supplier factories and the State and Union governments of India to ensure that workers’ incomes are protected and they are not forced to work in unsafe conditions. Therefore, the Clean Clothes Campaign network urges apparel companies around the world to realise that their supply chain responsibility extends to the garment workers who make their clothes amidst this pandemic and to act accordingly by:
- Honouring signed contracts and payment terms, while allowing for extended production timelines;
- Ensuring that all workers in the supply chain are paid their legally mandated wages and benefits, including severance payments and arrears, sick pay and also during any quarantine, isolation, or furlough;
- Ensuring that those workers who continue to go to the factory can do so in workplaces that respect all ILO and WHO Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) protection standards and have access to adequate protective equipment (PPE) and hygienic facilities, physical distancing, worker participation mechanisms, safe transport systems, the right to refuse unsafe work, and hazard pay;
- Ensuring workers’ right to organise is respected and that suppliers work with unions and worker organisations in addressing these issues, and that no workers are dismissed on discriminatory grounds such as union membership or distance to the factory; and
- Committing to pay into a negotiated severance guarantee fund to cover wage arrears and severance and to support stronger social protections for workers.
Governments must take responsibility
The government of India and other South Asian countries, state governments, as well as governments of countries where brands and retailers are headquartered should furthermore take responsibility by:
- Strengthening rather than weakening labour laws and human rights due diligence legislation;
- Establishing and maintaining social protection floors and improving national social security schemes to make them consistent with ILO standards including for unemployment, employment injury, and medical insurance;
- Financial support packages provided to companies should be connected to cost-sharing, protection of labour rights, and human rights due diligence; and
- Ensuring garment workers get access to Covid vaccines for free, by agreeing to the TRIPS waiver – especially the EU and the UK – as well as ensuring fair national distribution and access to vaccines in India and other South Asian countries.
More detailed directions on ensuring that garment workers’ rights are protected during this crisis can be found in this set of demands developed by the CCC network during the first wave of the pandemic, but are still all too relevant one year on.