World of Work: The pandemic’s impact on female garment workers

9 Jun 2020

GENEVA- Joba is a 28-year-old Bangladeshi garment worker and a new mother. Her factory, which was closed due to COVID-19, just reopened. But Joba couldn’t return. Her husband, an unemployed barber, told her to stay home to take care of their baby and avoid infection.

But with no money coming in, the couple is struggling to eat one meal a day and cover rent for their small room in one of Dhaka’s slums. Joba’s last salary of roughly $117 USD won’t last long.

Sharing the communal kitchen’s two burners with at least five other families, and concerned about exposure to others, Joba has resorted to cooking the little food she scrapes together late at night or very early in the morning.

Back in the factory, she used to receive two additional meals for nursing mothers during her shift. Food included eggs, bananas and milk. Meanwhile, her baby was looked after in the factory childcare facility. Casual conversations with co-workers helped Joba cope with everyday stress.

In her new confined life, Joba says her mental health is swiftly deteriorating. Most of the day, her husband’s shouting fills the room where she sits idle next to her child.

Hundreds of thousands of female workers across garment-producing countries share stories similar to Joba’s, showing the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the sector.

Women workers, who make up three-quarters of the global garment workforce, are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, facing salary losses, an increased burden of unpaid care work, additional barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services and a heightened risk of gender-based violence.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic has exposed pre-existing inequalities and weaknesses in social and economic systems, including access to social protection and health services,” says Joni Simpson, ILO Senior Specialist, Gender, Equality and Non-discrimination.

The economic shock caused by the pandemic across the global garment sector and the ensuing massive layoffs will further contribute to the exacerbation of these disparities.

“We are expecting to see an increase in unemployment of women in many of our country programmes,” says Better Work gender specialist Jessica Wan.

The situation women face in Bangladesh is mirrored in other garment-producing countries around the world.

In Haiti, where the garment industry accounts for almost 90 percent of the country’s exports and women make up the majority of workers, women find themselves facing layoffs with no unemployment insurance and limited assistance for furloughed workers.

“It is extremely important that women have food and cash resources right now,” says Cynthia Raymond, Better Work Haiti’s gender liaison. “A worker recently called me after getting fired and told me she didn’t know what to do next.”

Most factories in Haiti provide female workers, especially pregnant women and nursing mothers, with healthcare through their facilities. But the temporary work stoppage brought about by the pandemic has caused these services to a halt, triggering a potential long-term health impact on women.

Faced with this urgent health care need, Better Work Haiti and UNICEF are partnering to ensure women workers can access basic healthcare during the pandemic.

 “There are roughly a thousand pregnant or nursing women across our affiliated factories,” says Better Work Haiti Programme Manager Claudine François. “We are working with the Labour Ministry to map these workers and include them in the stimulus package the government is offering for vulnerable women.”

Better Work has adapted and digitised its training content on maternity protection across all its country programmes.

Through Mothers@Work, a national initiative in Bangladesh to support maternity rights and promote breastfeeding in the garment sector, Better Work Bangladesh has also started a partnership with UNICEF to reach out to pregnant women and nursing mothers across affiliated factories.

 Better Work programs are also working to provide resources to women who are the victims of increased gender-based violence.

 In Haiti, Better Work has been holding talks with the female union representatives on the violence risks women are facing, developing shared responses and discussing how to provide increased protections. The Bangladesh program is also using awareness-raising products on gender-based violence during training sessions with affiliated factories and suggesting they post material about psychosocial support and counselling services for workers.

Meanwhile, as factories start to gradually reopen, the health risks for women multiply.

“Women are very much impacted by the risk of getting COVID-19 by being in garment factories and in communities where the recommended distancing is difficult or impossible to implement,” says Arianna Rossi, Senior Research and Policy Specialist with Better Work Global. “Transportation options also provided limited ability for workers to socially distance from one another.”

Back in Dhaka, Joba says at least she feels she has information about the risks and mitigation strategies. She attended a Better Work health and awareness training on COVID-19 before leaving her factory in March, learning about physical distancing and hygiene practices to avoid possible infection.

Better Work is aiming to deliver trainings developed together with the ILO’s LabAdmin/OSH branch to all of its global factories, stressing the steps factories can take to ensure a safer return to work.

“Governments and social partners have now a unique opportunity to ‘build a better normal’ for the long-term sustainability and competitiveness of the sector,” says ILO’s Simpson. “This includes taking actions to close gender gaps”.

*Joba’s name has been altered to protect her anonymity.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Keep up to date with our latest news and publications by subscribing to our regular newsletter.