While the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in large-scale lockdowns, many workers are still required to report to work in crowded workplaces with a lack of adequate protections against the virus. These workers perform important and essential services, such as processing food, making masks and cleaning supplies, and warehousing and distributing goods to people who desperately need them. Other workers report to large call centers, including centers to assist with critical internet services, bank accounts, and medical care. Of course, frontline healthcare workers are making enormous sacrifices to provide us with the most essential services, but as this memo is focused on company supply chains, they will not be addressed herein.
Many companies providing essential services during the pandemic state that they have implemented safety measures to protect their workers from the virus; however, workers have reported experiencing pressure to report to workplaces they feel are unsafe. The International Labour Organization (ILO) and many national governments agree that workers have the right to refuse work that poses an immediate danger to their life or health, as per ILO Convention 155, and it is a company’s responsibility to ensure that all reasonable precautions are taken to protect workers in its supply chains.
Essential workers face the following risks:
Inadequate protection from the coronavirus
- Workers in large workplaces such as warehouses and call centers have reported a lack of social distancing measures and/or a lack of the ability to socially distance in practice. As the CDC notes with meatpacking plants, businesses must address: structural and process challenges, such as a lack of space between workstations; operational decisions on the number of workers per shift; and high production targets that can exert pressure on workers to crowd narrow warehouse and factory aisles.
- Workers, especially temporary and subcontracted workers, may lack paid sick leave or face barriers to obtaining it, thereby putting pressure on workers to continue reporting to work even if they experience symptoms of COVID-19 or are vulnerable to complications from the virus, as highlighted in this article from The New York Times.
- Workers may lack health and safety protections in employer-provided transit and housing. Employer-provided housing is common at workplaces with migrant workers, who are particularly vulnerable to abuse during the pandemic, as this Verité resource on COVID-19 and Vulnerability to Human Trafficking for Forced Labor explains.
- Workers have reported that their workplaces lack protective measures, such as non-surgical grade masks, soap and hand sanitizer, and deep cleaning regimens. Poor ventilation and shared use of equipment make such protective measures critical, yet workers, such as those making masks in Los Angeles, have continued to work with little protection.
Increased pressure to work, especially where there are surges in demand or reduced staff
- For years preceding the pandemic, Verité has seen supplier policies stating that workers “may be required to work overtime as needed.” Such broad policies can result in forced overtime during a surge in production demands or when other workers are absent.
- Pre-pandemic Verité assessments have shown that workers employed on busy production lines and in call centers may face difficulties taking breaks, including to drink water, use the bathroom, and call their families. There have already been reports of extensive overtime and restrictions on workers’ freedom of movement in the production of personal protective equipment (PPE), including in South Africa.
Retaliation and a lack of safe reporting channels
- Workers with serious concerns have reported that their superiors ignored or diminished the importance of their grievances. There have been reports of workers being coached to keep valid health and safety concerns to themselves rather than share them with coworkers, while others have been dismissed for advocating for improvements to health and safety protections.
- Workers may not request accommodations or speak out about hazardous working conditions if they fear retaliation. Workers are more likely to experience this fear if they have witnessed retaliation against coworkers who have spoken out.
- In workplaces with language barriers between workers and management, it is extremely difficult for workers to report coronavirus-related concerns and issues, thereby diminishing opportunities for employers to proactively identify and address risks.
Companies operating during the pandemic are faced with unprecedented challenges and expectations. Businesses providing essential goods and services are legally allowed to operate and may feel pressure to operate at peak production capacity; however, they are also under increased scrutiny by consumers and the media to protect their workers from the virus and, in doing so, also protect consumers and community members who interact with these workers. While protecting workers may result in decreases in production, companies must prioritize the safety and wellbeing of their workers and consumers if they are to be sustainable.
Company responses should be squarely based on the existing well-established local, national, and international standards and guidance on occupational health and safety. COVID-19 presents many challenges, but much guidance already exists at the workplace level and in terms of general approach, such as Verité’s Guiding Principles for Responsible Businesses During the Pandemic. When sourcing from other countries, companies must ensure that they understand and hold their suppliers accountable to local regulations, which are rapidly evolving in response to the pandemic.
Systematically assess risks posed to workers by COVID-19
- Companies should assess potential new risks faced by workers at their jobs, including risks from resuming or ramping up production as governments ease lockdown restrictions. For workplaces in the United States, OSHA has released guidelines on preparing workplaces for COVID-19.
- Risk assessments should be used to prioritize structural and administrative controls, such as physical barriers between workstations and training on the use of PPE.
- Companies should target their resources on COVID-19 “hotspots” and communicate with high-risk suppliers to understand the challenges of identifying and addressing COVID-19 related risks during the crisis.
- Companies should make use of COVID-19-specific management tools developed by trusted experts such as the ILO.
Strengthen policies to ensure that they cover risks related to COVID-19
- Standards should guarantee that workers are provided with healthy workplaces, including paid sick leave, sanitized workplaces and dormitories, PPE, and the ability to socially distance.
- Standards should ensure that work is always voluntary and workers are never forced to work under hazardous conditions or when ill, and do not engage in forced overtime.
- Staff and workers should be trained on any new policies and procedures (in their primary language).
Implement changes to company practices to decrease risks to workers
- Modify shifts and entrance times, if necessary, in order to reduce the agglomeration of workers in work areas, security lines, locker rooms, canteens, etc.
- Implement contact-free methods of clocking into work.
- Address workplace traffic bottlenecks in areas like canteens, hallways, bathrooms, and transportation.
- Reduce maximum meeting sizes and durations.
Develop robust monitoring and grievance mechanisms
- On-the-ground monitoring is challenging during a pandemic, so companies must develop interim measures, such as robust self-assessment questionnaires, remote auditing, and grievance mechanisms.
- Companies should utilize existing, on-the-ground human resources to collect and report back information on labor conditions.
- Companies must acknowledge that workers are the true experts of their working conditions and ensure that anonymous grievance mechanisms are available via safe, remote communications channels, such as hotlines or online discussion boards through which workers can report abuses and receive and share information on risks and worker protections.
- Companies should emphasize to workers that their concerns are heard and that there will be follow-up, and ensure that there are follow-up actions in practice.
- Companies should clearly communicate to workers and management a strict policy against any form of reprisals against workers who voice complaints.
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- COVID-19 and Vulnerability to Human Trafficking for Forced Labor
- Guiding Principles for Responsible Businesses During the COVID-19 Pandemic