Can workers reset the system?

Coronavirus has closed factories and workshops across the world, spelling disaster for millions of people who subsist on poverty wages. Tansy Hoskins reimagines a garment industry where workers are better protected.

Garment workers are seen at their desks during a shift in a clothing plant in Bangladesh. Photo: Marcel Crozet / ILO

The city of Tirupur in Tamil Nadu is known as the knitting capital of India. Thousands of garment factories, which make clothes for the domestic market and for export, co-exist with garment districts full of homeworkers. Some workshops just stitch on buttons, other households snip loose threads before pressing and packaging clothes ready for sale. With its sewing machines rattling through the day, textile agents going from house to house, rickshaw drivers blowing their horns, and children running underfoot, Tirupur is known as a busy industrial city.

The signs that something was not right began in January 2020. Homeworkers – always sensitive to the slightest shift in domestic and global markets – found that both contracts and access to raw materials had begun to reduce. By March, there was no work whatsoever.

The once bustling streets of Tirupur fell silent.

‘Homeworkers expected things were going to get worse, but nobody expected this,’ explained Janhavi Dave, International Co-ordinator of HomeNet South Asia, at the end of June. ‘We saw the absolute shutting down of supply chains. No work. That’s it. Period.’ For families who subsist on poverty wages at the best of times, the Covid-19 global shutdown has spelt disaster.

It is a story that can be told a billion times over. In supply chains and workplaces across the globe, work has slowed or shuddered to a halt. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) estimates 300 million jobs in formal sectors of employment are at risk and up to 1.6 billion informal workers face destitution.

To compound this misery further, there is growing evidence that governments and businesses around the world are taking advantage of the Covid-19 crisis to advance an anti-workers’ rights agenda.

There are pockets of success. A South African union brokered an agreement to guarantee six weeks of full pay for 80,000 workers as the country went into lockdown

‘Historically, the costs of any crisis have always been borne by the working class, and the Covid-19 pandemic is no different,’ explains Nandita Shivakumar at the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. She notes a worrying trend in the garment trade: governments, backed by industry, seeking sweeping reforms to labour laws. ‘There’s a deep fear that these changes, which dismantle existing provisions (including minimum-wage legislation) won through long working-class struggles, will be rushed through without consultation.’

Research by the ITUC finds that labour violations have reached a seven-year high, with Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt and Honduras ranked as the worst offenders. In Cambodia, where garment factory owners are calling for cuts to the hard-fought minimum wage, trade unionists have already been fired and arrested for speaking out.

With the virus forcing millions of people to choose between going to work and getting sick, or staying at home to starve, the Journal of Risk Research foresees a rise in ‘modern slavery conditions’, especially as ongoing demand for the manufacture of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is leading to governments dropping due diligence measures such as audit inspections that are meant to better regulate manufacturing supply chains.

This dire situation is no unfortunate coincidence. Brands and retailers have made billions in profit by paying workers a pittance and removing their ability to save for emergencies such as this one, while minimizing company tax contributions. This punishing economic system has ‘constrained the ability of states in the Global South to spend on social goods and worker welfare measures (like public healthcare or employment generation), during a crisis like Covid-19,’ explains Nandita Shivakumar.

Islands of progress

Sharon Burrows is the General Secretary of the ITUC, based in Brussels. ‘It has,’ she says, ‘been shocking to see the division between those corporations that guaranteed 90 days of employment, respected paid sick leave and paid for contractual commitments and those that couldn’t – or wouldn’t – use operating reserves.’

The Worker Rights Consortium published a list of fashion brands which made no commitment to pay in full for orders. After a global public campaign, the list (as of July) still included Arcadia, GAP, Walmart and Primark. In the UK, ultra-fast-fashion brand Boohoo has once again come under scrutiny, this time for using exploitative supplier factories in Leicester, which suffered a renewed peak in infection, during the pandemic.

In addition, Sharon Burrows says Covid-19 has exposed the cracks in corporate resilience – in the same way that banks were exposed during the 2008 financial crisis. Covid-19 proved to be the final nail in the coffin for high-street staples Oasis and Warehouse, whose online business was sold off to Boohoo. ‘Workers must not pay for this crisis,’ Sharon Burrows continues, proposing job creation and patient debt models to help the industry recover.

Among the chaos, there have been pockets of success. At the end of March, the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU) brokered an agreement to guarantee six weeks of full pay for 80,000 workers as the country went into lockdown.

In the US, Seattle City Council passed emergency legislation to require app-based companies such as Uber and Lyft to pay their workers a form of sick pay, based on the number of days they worked for the company and the amount they had earned. This was seen as a big step in the broader fight to classify freelance ‘gig workers’ as proper employees.

Workers also sometimes proved better than governments at organizing the relief effort. In Dharavi – a sprawling township embedded within the Indian city of Mumbai – communities of informal workers came together to support each other as almost all home-based workers, domestic workers, street vendors, micro-factory workers, garment workers and ragpickers found themselves out of work.

Janhavi Dave describes how women homeworkers suddenly found themselves on the frontline of the Covid-19 response, organizing everything from dishing out food aid to negotiating access to toilets, with the support of the Labour Education and Research Network (LEARN). Food rations arriving haphazardly in shops had to be fairly distributed, social distancing in queues had to be organized, migrant workers who did not qualify for rations had to be fed, and families in total crisis had to be found and nursed back to health.

Dharavi has purpose-built toilet blocks, designed to be clean and safe and to serve entire neighbourhoods. But during lockdown, police patrols were stopping people from leaving their houses. ‘You can’t just have brute force,’ Janhavi says. ‘One needs to be an insider to understand the practicality of it,’ explaining how workers grouped together to get their basic rights to access the toilet reinstated.

‘A government wouldn’t know this was happening, only locals would know,’ she continues. ‘Decentralization of any implementation plan is extremely important, community organizing is important, power to the people is important.’

System reset

‘I don’t think we want to go back to the “before” but we need to see the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to “reset” the system,’ says Nandita Shivakumar.

This idea is echoed by Sharon Burrows, who says that the future has to be constructed on ‘a different set of foundations’. She believes recovery will be the most difficult period for the global economy in generations.

‘We must ensure that democracy and rights with decent work and social protection are at the centre of that recovery,’ Sharon Burrows explains. ‘We need to build a resilient global economy, on the foundation of a New Social Contract: a new commitment to workers’ rights, renewed investment in compliance and the rule of law, a business model that serves people and workplace democracy with secure jobs and adequately funded health, education and care.’

In practical terms, the demands of trade unions seeking to protect their workers are fully achievable if resources are more fairly distributed. Anton Marcus is the Joint Secretary of the Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union in Sri Lanka, where millions of garment workers earn $84 a month or less. Marcus’s demand is that his members keep their jobs, are protected from the virus, and have their income ensured.

To do this, he says: ‘Brands and manufacturers should ensure a peaceful atmosphere at plant level by engaging in social dialogue with unions and ensuring workers’ satisfaction. At the same time,’ he continues, ‘there should be a social protection scheme with brands and suppliers contributing funds so that in any similar situation in future all will be protected.’ 

In informal supply chains, homeworkers are grouping together to form producer companies and co-operatives which can win contracts to make PPE. This is not to paint too rosy a picture – HomeNet South Asia covers around 900,000 homebased workers, and Janhavi estimates that not more than 9,000 of them have work. But those who do have work are collectivized and winning solid contracts, such as an order to make a national supply of PPE masks from the King of Bhutan.

As the foundations of the world economy shake, Janhavi says it is time to reimagine work and workspaces for all of us. In homes, community centres and factories over the coming months and years, billions of people will struggle to regain their footing. Whatever happens, the world will not recover without the full participation and empowerment of the people whose daily labour keeps us all fed and clothed and safe.

Speaking from her home office in Bangalore, Janhavi emphasizes a mantra from the homeworkers movement: ‘There is a slogan that we have,’ she concludes. ‘Nothing for us, without us. Don’t offer or plan anything without our participation or voice.’