Action in the time of COVID-19: worker outreach and the way forward
GENEVA – Better Work has been working around the clock to keep up continuous worker outreach across its nine country programmes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
As entire countries shut down as coronavirus infections spiked, Better Work responded via an array of communication pathways to keep a direct line with workers of its affiliated factories: from text and messaging apps to telephone lifelines.
The programme is currently taking stock of its immediate crisis response approach, also adapting the successful methods implemented over the past few months to create future action plans.
“As the disruption began earlier this year, our staff based in country programmes, who know their constituents best, used their creativity and initiative to experiment with ways to reach out and to keep connection with workers,” says Jeff Eisenbraun, Better Work Technical Officer for research and impact.
Most of the world is heavily interconnected thanks to social networking sites and messaging apps —garment workers are no exception. But Better Work soon realized that during the crisis, outreach by phone call suited the fast-changing circumstances well, giving workers a human connection amid the unprecedented situation.
“In these times of uncertainty, talking over the phone can often break down barriers because the persons are feeling a human connection,” says Eisenbraun. “They are able to willingly give their perspective and connect with someone whom they feel is genuinely interested in them.”
This was the case particularly in Jordan, where thousands of migrant workers, mostly hailing from South and South East Asia, found themselves isolated in their dormitories from one day to the next, unable to work and facing unprecedented circumstances in a foreign country.
That’s where Better Work saw an early creative response. This outreach through phone calls involved local staff alongside international consultants.
“Workers initially reached out because they have come to know me over the years and we have built a mutual relationship of trust,” says Anne Shanali Weerasuriya, a Sri Lanka-based Better Work consultant who has been working in Jordan for several years. She continues to make daily phone calls with the workers there.
“Workers tried to verify the information they were acquiring through me. They wanted updates concerning their salaries and were wondering about ways to send their remittances back to Sri Lanka. I’ve also gone through the safety measures they must take in general to minimize contagion risks,” Weerasuriya says.
The same happened in Cambodia and Ethiopia, with Better Work staff reaching out to workers via phone calls. Triggering a snowball effect, those workers then started to call other colleagues to share the latest information from the programme.
In Haiti, several rounds of phone calls were made to pregnant female workers isolated at home. It was at a time that the workforce was facing layoffs, with no unemployment insurance and limited assistance for furloughed workers. In Bangladesh, the local branch of Better Work has been partnering instead with organizations on the ground to directly contact the sector’s workforce.
Meanwhile, Better Work Indonesia recently started a new round of phone calls with local workers, targeting social dialogue issues across the factory floor, including questions on whether they have discussed buyer cancellation of orders and pay issues in the factory that have cropped up as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
Better Work’s phone call approach has kept a continuous and direct line with workers and stakeholders alike in some of the world’s largest Readymade Garment (RMG) exporting countries — all during the most critical time of the health crisis.
“This method reconfirms one of the key strengths of Better Work’s philosophy, which is having a close contact with people in the industry,” Eisenbraun says. “This provides a really unique window into the working life and the home life of the workers. To us working on research and policy, maintaining this connection and such an access to a direct perspective is crucial.”
As the situation evolves globally by the day, Better Work researchers have been battling against time to support local operations on the ground. Since the start of the emergency, they contributed to making sure that questions asked during phone calls were matching the latest development on the ground to identify the challenges facing workers.
The programme’s research team has also been offering guidance for consistency in methods and analysis used by the staff on the ground. It has helped break down workers’ answers and concerns for broader audiences.
Conversations with workers across Better Work’s network during the pandemic have provided the programme’s researchers with a vast collection of information that Better Work is now using to advocate for their protection.
Workers’ voices have been elevated at the national levels over the past months and have been used in academic publications addressing the international concerns of the the sector.
Ethiopia, for example, has emphasized the results from both manager and the worker surveys conducted about the COVID-19 response at national and international levels. This allowed the programme to highlight the real impact of the pandemic on the ground through to the workers’ own words.
“We are thinking of a variety of different methods to elicit workers’ perspectives in the future,” Eisenbraun says. “They could be a combination of traditional survey methods with the support of a more technology-dependent approach or also through phone calls. We will continue to experiment and try to figure out ways to scale up elevating worker voice, especially in times of crisis. ”