An all-women, multicultural task force with Better Work at its helm has reached out to over 700 migrant workers in the apparel industry living in Jordan since the country began a tight lock down on 18 March.
The country has been under a tight lockdown for over a month, but is now set to start easing some restrictions, allowing more businesses and industries to return to work. Several garment factories already resumed production at partial capacity earlier this month with joint approval from the ministries of labour and health, alongside the country’s ministry of industry and trade.
Jordan has recorded over 400 coronavirus cases and seven deaths to date.
Since its onset, the unprecedented situation has sent shockwaves through the foreign workforce of the country’s garment sector, which makes up around 75 percent of the total 76,220 workers. Bangladeshi nationals make around 60 percent of the sector’s foreign workforce, followed by Indian, Sri Lankan, Nepali, Burmese and Pakistani workers.
Migrant workers, who live and work in Jordan’s industrial zones on fixed-term contracts, became increasingly confused and concerned amid the pandemic. Rooms hosting up to eight workers each were abuzz as people began scouring social media for information on the virus.
“A task force was swiftly organized comprising three union members from Bangladesh and two Better Work team members, from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka respectively, and started to contact workers over the phone,” says Zainab Yang, the Better Work Jordan Team Leader.
“We coordinated with the factories to obtain the contacts of dormitory supervisors and worker committee representatives,” Yang says. “Our initial idea was to carry out awareness-raising campaigns about the new coronavirus in the workers’ native languages to reach as many people as possible.”
The first calls had a snowball effect, leading to an increasing number of workers directly calling the Better Work-run task force with questions.
Being well-versed in Bangla, Sinhala, Tamil and Hindi helped task force members reach across nationalities in the sector.
“Our main goal is to communicate with the workers and make them feel they are not abandoned,” Yang says, adding the workers’ mental health is the group’s focus. “If workers know there is someone they can talk to they become less tense.”
In a typical phone call, the Better Work-run group ask workers about how they feel and how they are spending their time. They also encourage them and share informative material from the Word Health Organization, along with advice provided by the Jordanian government.
The number of workers who have spoken to members of the task force is hard to calculate. While the team has more over 700 official calls, this number could be much higher, as interactions frequently happen through the Imo.im app, a messaging service extremely popular among the foreign workforce in the sector, or through other social media platforms. It is also common for many workers to join the same phone call.
“As soon as I opened my IMO app, messages from Sri Lankan workers based in Jordan started appearing on my phone,” says Anne Shanali Weerasuriya, a Better Work consultant from Sri Lanka. “They were asking for basic support and reassurance.”
She says fake news circulating on social media have sent workers over the edge on several occasions.
“I received over a hundred calls from alarmed workers in a single day caused by fears resulting from unofficial information mentioning fatalities due to COVID-19 in their proximities,” Weerasuriya said.
According to Afia Rashid, a Bangladeshi national who works as a consultant with Better Work Jordan and is a member of the task force, many workers were asking for help to contact their families back home and for clarifications on government-imposed curfew in their dorms.
“Workers of all nationalities have been wondering how to send remittances to their families at a time where all banks are closed in the Kingdom [of Jordan],” Rashid says. “And where to purchase basic goods and top up their phones as shops in Jordan’s industrial zones are also entirely shut.”
Better Work Jordan is also keeping a close eye on Jordanian garment workers, who are spending the lockdown confined to their homes. Through the programme’s Industrial Relation officer, the programme has established a direct line with the local workers, aiming boost their knowledge of the virus and respond to their concerns.
Meanwhile, garment factories in Jordan have taken prevention measures in the wake of the pandemic, including sanitization of workers’ dorms, the provision of masks and gloves and the arrangement of spaced-out meal times.
“The messages we are currently receiving from workers have changed compared to March,” says Better Work Jordan consultant Rashid. “Concerns are mounting among them about working safety, ways of keeping social distance, especially during lunch breaks, payment of salaries and job security.”
Having talked to over 80 workers including dorm supervisors and worker representatives from different nationalities since the onset of the pandemic in Jordan, Rashid says workers have been resilient and patient so far, especially in light of the difficulties they were going through.
“They are being cooperative. This is quite positive,” Rashid says. “Also, factories are doing a good job to take the health measures to protect their workers. The majority of the workers feel they have been well taken care of. This is very important at this time.”
Still, as the global textile industry has seen current orders drop over 30 percent between the end of March and early April according to a survey by the International Textile Manufacturers Federation (ITMF), initial signs of slowdown also begun to be seen across Jordan’s factory floors. This is leading some factories to think of possible downsizing plans in the coming months.
“Workers are now asking whether their contracts will be extended or not in the near future.” Rashid says. “Certainly, we will continue to support them throughout the crisis through our phone calls. Dialogue, coordination with the factories and clarity of information are among the elements that can possibly build a constructive atmosphere right now, allowing all the actors to overcome this emergency.”