As major retail outlets cancel orders due to global COVID19 lockdowns, the production of low-cost fashion has come to a standstill in many parts of the world, leaving many garment workers in the global south without pay or work. Understanding the impact of these drastic shifts in working conditions is crucial to preventing further humanitarian crises and protecting those who rely on these industries for survival.
Since its conception, the Child Labour Action Research Innovation in South and South-Eastern Asia (CLARISSA) programme has sought to address these challenges by engaging in action-led research that reflects real-world realities, not just academic debates. It has been calling for transparency in supply chains and working with local partners to develop interventions for counteracting the worst forms of child labour.
Covid-19 unequally affects people living in poverty and low-income economies. Yet we know very little of how this is affecting the 1.2 million children in Bangladesh who are already engaged in worst forms of child labour. This includes children in modern-day slavery, forced labour, bonded work, and any sort of work that affects children’s physical and mental wellbeing.
In Bangladesh, around 87 per cent of people are involved in informal economies. Highly populated areas and piece-rate work mean that people living in urban slums are among those who are most affected by the economic crisis caused by COVID19.
To better understand the full impact, the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) has launched a rapid research response to COVID19. Their survey among people in urban slums and rural poor revealed that there was more than 70 per cent drop in income for people living in poverty. Those who depend on daily wages, for example, day labourers, rickshaw pullers, construction workers, street vendors, workers at small informal factories have lost their incomes with the hit of the pandemic. The prolonged lockdown in Bangladesh is probably helping to flatten the curve of people contracting COVID19, but accentuating a rising curve of people losing their jobs.
The world demands ‘social distancing’ and ‘lockdown’ for many more days, but this is deeply problematic to many who need to go out to earn money so that they are literally able to have food to eat. There is an inclination to slowly relax the lockdown by reopening industries, factories, markets, and some offices to keep the economy moving in Bangladesh. There is a real danger that people living in poverty who anyway are severely vulnerable to shock may face insurmountable economic insecurity. The pandemic, therefore, needs to be approached from a holistic lens – where health calamity is interlinked to economic and social catastrophes.
CLARISSA works in urban slums in Dhaka where children and adults are mostly engaged in work related to the production of leather goods. With the disruption of the global supply chain, the economy in Bangladesh has shut down for almost two months now which has created a sense of eeriness and futility among people living in poverty.
Ruma, 27, a mother of two children, 14 and 12 years old, lives at Hazaribag, the tannery neighbourhood in Dhaka. Ruma’s husband cleans animal hides at a tannery, while their sons dry the wet hide of the animals. In a telephone conversation with a member of the CLARISSA team working with the in-country partner NGO, Grambangla Unnayan Committee, Ruma discussed how Covid-19 had changed their lives. Ruma said:
“All of a sudden Corona outbreak shattered all our happiness in life. As the government declared lockdown, the employer kicked out me and my sons from his shop without paying the dues. The owner also had to shut down his shop as the government declared lockdown”
Since then the sufferings continued and got intensified as Ruma said, “now we do not have any money to buy food. We are unable to pay house rent from March. The house owner at the slum is continuously asking for the rent, he also verbally assaults us repetitively”.
After ready-made garments, leather and the leather products industry is one of the largest export sectors in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) reports that until 29 April US$3.18bn export cancelled/suspended affecting 2.8 million workers including factory closures and lay-offs.
The leather sector in Bangladesh envisages a monthly loss of around US$100 million due to major drops in exports. The provisional data from the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) shows that the total export of leather and leather products has already dropped down by 16.26 per cent in comparison to the corresponding period of last financial year. The small and medium-sized enterprises, on the other hand, are bleakly affected by the economic crisis which risks them running their businesses. Media reports that thousands of temporary workers in the leather sector have become unemployed while salaries of permanent workers were on hold due to China’s cancellation of orders.
As most of the leather processing factories have shut down, around 25,000 tannery workers at the bottom of the supply chain are in great despair about their lives. There is a general belief among many that the number of deaths from hunger will be much higher than those from the coronavirus in Bangladesh.
This crisis exposes children to further risk – especially those already engaged in the worst forms of child labour. Most of the families count on their children’s income to run the family, a prolonged disruption is likely to jeopardise working children by lowering their pay rates and requiring them to work much longer hours, exposing them to risk of abuse and exploitation among others, and indeed to work with the risk of Covid-19 itself. The prolonged school closure may also increase the number of children dropping out of school and engaging in child labour.
In Bangladesh, people living in poverty have very limited access to social services. Though the attempt to relax the lockdown may slowly move the wheel of economy, the government urgently needs to ensure sufficient stimulus packages for those whose work and businesses are threatened by the effect of the pandemic.
It is critical at this time that buyers in international supplies chain honour the orders that they have made – many of which have already been made up. Companies talk about cleaning up supply chains so that children are not in the worst forms of child labour, but their current actions could lead directly to massive increases in child labour and worsening conditions for children in the informal sector.