GBL Access
Lavanya Garg

Lavanya Garg

April 08th, 2021 6 min read

“But, what about me? I can’t work from home.”

[Urgent] Organizational Measures In Light Of COVID-19. 

This company wide email from our CEO marked the official acceptance that we were entering a grave situation. It wasn’t a shock. The prior few weeks were full of murmurs and mask purchasing, cautiously going to the office or increasingly opting to work remotely. The email started with the decision that work from home was mandatory for all employees indefinitely depending on the data, and then moving on to advise us all to keep socially distanced, wash our hands, and to stay strong; that we were going to get through this as a family. The rest of 2020 took a similar path to what most of you reading this experienced yourselves: a blurry mix of chaos, gratitude, and being keenly aware of our collective mortality.

Now, over a year later, the feeling is very much the same. But fatigue has been added to the mix. This article has been tweaked and frustratingly edited countless times, to reflect the worrying trajectory of cases and status of the pandemic in India. And apart from a handful of urgent projects which require field presence, we are still very much working from home, but now at ease with the transition from on-field to online.

A conundrum which we have been grappling with, particularly during the early months of the pandemic, has been, “what about those who can’t work from home?” Engaging, interviewing and surveying workers in labor intensive industries is at the core of what we do at Good Business Lab. And while we have been able to adopt new tools such as phone surveys to continue our work, the person at the other end of the line simply doesn’t have the ability to work from home.

The reflection analysis of our situation versus their situation has been rather sobering.

If you’re reading this, you are digitally literate and probably own a smartphone. In a survey of 2600 garment workers in 2018, we found that 40 percent of the workers did not know how to send an SMS and only 45 percent of them owned smartphones. You are also probably not working a minimum wage job. Factory workers – our main stakeholders in India – earn minimum wages, which, depending on their skill, industry, and state of residence, is usually somewhere between INR 8,000 – 10,000 a month (USD 109 -136). And in the garment industry, most of these workers are women, who do double shifts: one at home to make sure the rest of the family is all set for the day, and the other at the factory.

Workplace flexibility and wellbeing policies are also polar opposites. On the days I am feeling unwell, I can ping my boss to say I will start work a bit late. If you are a night owl, work from home has probably been a boon for you, allowing you to structure your work days according to a sleep schedule you prefer. Working hours and holidays for factory workers are in accordance with the national labor laws; work shifts are of 9-10 hours (typically between 9:00am to 6:00pm), including a lunch break for 30-45 minutes (this depends on the factory). They work six days a week and get a weekly off only on Sundays.

These comparisons made us realize that although the virus does not discriminate between who it infects, and that COVID-19 has upended life as we knew it, we cannot and must not reduce it to a single narrative that is based on one dominant group’s lived experience. 

And for this reason, the theme of the first series of our new thought leadership platform, GBL Access, is “But, what about me? I can’t work from home.” Our goal is to highlight how this pandemic has been particularly devastating for low income workers and their families; through conversations on the ground with workers, and by drawing on GBL research and expert insights from the business, academic, and policy worlds. To envision how we can collectively drive action.

We will look into the multiple dilemmas that both firms and workers have had to manage while trying to get to grips with this new reality, and how labor-intensive industries are rethinking “business as usual." The overarching question is how, together, we can build back with more resilience and focus on worker wellbeing.

We hope by perusing through all the content we create, you can walk a mile in the shoes of migrant workers, ask businesses how they’re bouncing back, and pay special attention to the future of women’s work.

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