Pandemic Borders

Will global corporations take responsibility for those they have long exploited?

A transnational solidarity beyond borders must include the corporations and conglomerates who benefitted from precarious labour.

Jay Ramasubramanyam
Jay Ramasubramanyam
18 May 2020
Workers in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 3, 2020
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Picture by Anando Chowdhury/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation, on March 11 disrupting life as we know it. But as many articles have exposed, among the most aggrieved are migrant workers and factory workers in the global south.

On April 2, 2020 The Guardian reported that over a million Bangladeshi garment workers lost their jobs and were sent home without pay after several western conglomerates like Primark cancelled their existing orders in the wake of the epidemic. Many migrant workers in the Middle East have also been feeling the effects of the pandemic on their health and livelihood. In recent years, organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have published damning reports on the abuses and exploitation faced by migrant workers who have been hired to build infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The kafala system that gives employers excessive control over migrant workers, including preventing them from changing jobs or leaving abusive labor situations have only exacerbated the precarity of many amid COVID-19.

Workers who secured these precarious jobs, in addition to paying thousands of dollars to recruiters, have also been forced to live in squalid conditions and are unable to practice social distancing with a complete shutdown of all public spaces in the country. Migrant workers are also unable to access healthcare and sanitation which puts them at a great deal of risk. Not enough is currently being done to generate greater international solidarity and mitigate the concerns of workers globally.

The pandemic has laid bare the fragility of the system that favours the interests of consumers while simultaneously failing its workers in times of crises. It has also exposed the dearth of benevolence and empathy extended to those on the margins. Those who are privy to accessing de facto workspaces from home or virtually with a great deal of comfort, may overlook the privilege they hold and may choose to ignore the dysfunctionality of this system.

The burden of COVID-19 continues to be borne by workers at the bottom of the chain who have no savings to survive on during such times

Since the beginning of this pandemic, experts have attempted to provide an explanation on how the world could change under strict measures of lockdown and the impact it could have on livelihoods. But one thing is clear – the impact of the pandemic is not as black and white as it seems. In fact, the story of the pandemic can be boiled down to the differential impacts it has on the privileged and the underprivileged, white and non-white, rich and poor, essential and non-essential, able-bodied and disabled.

In the age of global supply chains which employs over 450 million people, the burden of COVID-19 continues to be borne by workers at the bottom of the chain who have no savings to survive on during such times. A report published by the Centre for Global Workers’ Rights at Pennsylvania State University, drew upon responses from Bangladeshi garment workers who demonstrate the impacts the devastating economic destitution and the closure of factories have had on them. The report suggests that more than a million garment workers have been fired or furloughed and 98.1% of the “buyers refused to contribute to the cost of paying the partial wages to furloughed workers that the law requires.”

The pledge fund announced by Primark for Bangladeshi garment workers and H&M agreeing to pay for the goods that have already been manufactured in Bangladesh, appear to be a lifeline amid the crisis. However, many buyers and conglomerates have evoked the force majeure clause to cancel their orders, despite contracts not explicitly specifying pandemics as grounds for non-payment. Global conglomerates and clothing brands have managed to find a way to avoid sharing the cost of compensating workers in the supply chains who represent the weakest link. With the pre-existing fragility of social safety nets in countries like Bangladesh and low tax revenues from corporations that use these supply chains, as Naomi Klein writes, the pandemic “could well be the catalyst to shower aid on the wealthiest interests in society, including those most responsible for our current vulnerabilities”.

The impact of the pandemic on factory workers has exacerbated some of the pre-existing hazards in relation to basic workplace safety. The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh killed 1138 garment employees. The very corporations that have cancelled orders quoting the pandemic-related economic downturn, chose to look the other way and refused to take responsibility for the rights of factory workers in the aftermath of the tragedy. While the Rana Plaza tragedy may have resulted in efforts to improve working conditions, little has been done to mitigate the precarity of those who continue to work in such factories. With fewer than 5% of garment workers being unionized and many still earning below the legal minimum, the hazards continue to mount.

Global conglomerates and clothing brands have managed to find a way to avoid sharing the cost of compensating workers in the supply chains

Migrant workers have faced some similar concerns in addition to hazards to their well-being. Qatar 2022 prompted the swift hiring of many migrant workers mostly from South Asia to build infrastructure projects. With the lockdown of all public spaces in the country there is a greater level of uncertainty to the workers’ future. The Guardian reported that Qatar’s largest labour camp had practically turned into a prison with many reported to have contracted the virus.

With just food and accommodation provided, many migrant workers are on unpaid leave. The UK-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) expressed concerns in a report and demonstrated that little has been done to protect migrant workers. Construction companies have not provided workers with Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and have not guaranteed job security. The lack of protection both from Qatar and from countries of origin of many of these workers has exacerbated their already perilous conditions.

Aside from companies, states are equally responsible for overlooking the welfare of many of these people. The transnational manifestation of this disregard can be attributed to South Asian states benefitting from a boost to their GDP courtesy of remittances by migrant workers in addition to states like Qatar benefitting from cheap labour. For instance, in 2018 India received $78.6 billion in overseas transfers. Unfortunately, the benefits of such remittances outweigh the need for stronger lobbying efforts to better protect migrant workers.

Much of the attention is on tackling a public health disaster that has already cost over 235,000 lives. However, it is also clear that the human dimensions of COVID-19 extend far beyond a medical response. With social, political, economic, and development agenda at stake, the response must not squarely fall on states. A transnational solidarity beyond borders, that includes corporations and conglomerates, is needed now more than ever.

The pandemic has exposed the fault lines inherent in labour markets and the pre-existing economic system. But if capitalism is to live up to its promise of lifting people out of poverty, the champions of the system may need to rethink the ‘business-as-usual’ model. An unprecedented crisis of this magnitude requires an unprecedented response. As the Director of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Guy Ryder writes, “the effectiveness of our response to this existential threat may be judged by not the scale or speed of cash injections, or whether the recovery curve is flat or steep, but by what we did for the most vulnerable among us”.

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