Beyond COVID-19

Manufacturing firms are reopening factories in a completely new landscape, and in order to recover now and succeed in a world beyond COVID-19, firms will need to address the various physical and mental challenges created by this pandemic.

To best contribute to this worldwide effort of fighting COVID-19, we have been leveraging our research and design expertise to address some of the challenges faced by the manufacturing industry. This article presents 3 of the ways in which we are engaging with our industry and research partners to tackle key issues and help firms adapt to this new landscape.

  1. Listening to data
  2. Designing the blueprint for an anxiety-free environment for workers in factories
  3. Applying learnings to real scenarios

In partnership with ID-insight, we conducted phone surveys in April 2020 with 560 female migrant employees (of garment factories) to understand how their financial and remittance behaviors were affected in wake of the pandemic. Additionally, we inquired how migrant workers dealt with stress levels, financial constraints and food shortages.

The sample primarily comprises young (average 23 years old), single, female migrants, mostly from Odisha (50%), Jharkhand (21%), and Assam (11%), currently residing in hostels. All are formal sector workers and received their salary during the lockdown period. They have been working at Shahi on average for 1-2 years.

This data collection was in addition to our earlier study with IDinsight on promoting digital payments among female migrant factory workers through training at the workplace.

Key Findings:

1. Workers mostly stayed back in their hostels at the factory during the lockdown due to a lack of time to plan their trip home. The fear of coronavirus only marginally affected their decisions to stay. Only 11% reported not going back home due to a fear of spreading (5%) or catching (6%) COVID-19.
2. The lockdown changed remittance behaviour. Compared to November 2019 when 70% migrants sent remittances, only 7% sent remittances in April, 2020. This is despite the facts that they were paid full salary. Those who did remit sent back 40% of their monthly wages (INR 3100), similar to pre-COVID-19. Increase in the expenditure was the main reason (42%) cited by workers for not remitting.
3. The workers were most worried about their employment perspective (46%) followed by their own health (41%).

Why our findings are useful:

In contrast to the migrant workers employed in the informal sector who lost their jobs as a result of the lockdown, the migrant workers surveyed in our study are employed in the formal sector and received their complete salary during the lockdown period. Before the pandemic, we found that these migrant workers remitted almost half of their take home salary to their families. However, despite continuing to receive their salary, survey results have shown that the amount remitted to families has dropped significantly during this pandemic, suggesting that workers are keeping hold of their money due to anxieties around the pandemic induced economic uncertainties. These results reiterate the importance of Industry and Government policy on reducing economic anxiety in the formal sector workforce.

In May/June 2020, we plan to conduct follow-up phone surveys with the migrant workers to explore some of the mechanisms of change in remittance behavior in more detail. We will also learn more about how the dependent families are coping with decreased remittance income.

At the beginning of April 2020, we held an intensive 2 day hackathon where 18 participants from GBL and Shahi Exports were split into 3 teams. Together, they were tasked to design a blueprint on how to create an anxiety-free environment for workers in factories as operations reopen following the lockdown period. The detailed document is available for download here.

The following recommendations and insights build on the standard guidelines provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Government of India (GOI):

We are all in this together: the importance of empathy-led communication

Stay connected with workers and make them feel valued

It is crucial for factories to boost worker morale. In order to elicit cooperation and solidarity, the general tone of communication should be welcoming, considerate, and empathetic.

We suggest having a “Day 0” - the first day the factory reopens - reserved for acclimatization, a reduced workload, and to address the emotions and anxieties faced by workers. Some examples of communication include:

  • Addressing the “life vs livelihood” trade-off faced by workers. Convey that personal safety = financial safety of the family, and that financial safety of the family = economic safety of the nation.
  • Encourage the mantra of “Your Health is My Health” to combat fears and suspicions, and promote cooperation.
  • Place the chart of symptoms and new practices in visible locations. Complement this with “relaxing” posters such as photos of animals, babies, grounding exercises, or motivational quotes.
What to consider when preparing the workplace for the arrival of the workforce

Thank workers for coming to work

Arranging a Welcome Kit for workers on their first day back is a simple gesture which can go a long way in building confidence and positivity. A Welcome kit could include:

  • Masks for all workers and their family. Factories can organize a DIY activity where workers customize their mask, thereby forming and emotional attachment with the mask and making usage more likely.
  • Sanitary napkins and iron supplements for female workers
  • Basic health and hygiene guidelines
Potential touchpoints in the day of the life of a worker

Worker Touchpoint Map

The illustration above maps all the potential touchpoints, or interaction zones, where COVID-19 could be spread as imagined through a day in the worker’s life.

Entering the workplace

On entry at the factory, employees should queue at socially safe distances between each other, go through temperature and basic screening, followed by hand washing and sanitizing.

In line with standard HR and compliance protocol, every Factory HR Department must maintain a log with the emergency contact details for the worker, their relatives / guardian, and address of residence.

Reducing touchpoints in the workplace

Once inside the factory unit, there are many simple interventions which can be introduced to reduce the touchpoints and thereby reduce the risk of transmitting the virus through surface contact.

  • Keep doors open where possible to avoid use of handles.
  • Keep “use and throw” materials available in bathrooms for use when opening doors and touching surfaces. Materials could include disposable tissues, or cloth scraps (which are easily available in garment factories). This new protocol must be clearly communicated to workers.
  • Limit the washroom to two people at a single time, and adopt the “one in - one out” policy.
  • Space out tables and chairs in the factory canteen, and add cardboard / plastic dividers on tables to prevent transmission whilst socializing.
  • BYOB: Bring Your Own Bottle. Ask workers to bring their own mugs and water bottles if possible.
  • Stagger work and lunch timings to avoid crowding, and encourage as little movement as possible, for example request workers who normally go home for lunch to instead bring their lunch to work.
  • Increase space between workstations where possible. Add either plastic sheets as dividers between stations or use face shields to prevent transmission.
  • Maintain and regularly update required stock of PPE and sanitary equipment.

Medical Care and Precautionary Actions

Ask workers to complete a self-declaration form on their travel history and current health status. The tone should not be threatening, and should reassure that people who choose to stay home due to health issues will not be laid-off, wherever possible.

  • If feasible, as this will be labor intensive, all workers should be informed two-three days in advance of returning to work that they will need to complete a self-declaration form.
  • The completed forms must be signed by all employees at a factory - right from the general managers to workers. This is necessary for the safety of the entire campus and will also ensure that workers don’t feel singled out and thereby judged. The feeling of judgement will result in underreporting in case of any symptoms later.
  • Set up counselling help desks constituted of Medical and HR teams.
  • Have a company ambulance available to take anyone to a medical facility when required.
How to use this opportunity to rethink what is possible

Innovation - Use this opportunity to rethink what is possible.

  • Re-think the business value matrix
    Be a pioneer in leading a paradigm shift to focus on "worker satisfaction" over and above “worker productivity” in public facing reports and communication. As a principle and strategy - in statements to the governments, stakeholders, partners, brands etc., commence with updates on worker wellbeing and focus on social profits before economic profits. Take a stand.
  • Shorter Work Week
    Businesses can consider operating factories every alternate day or fewer number of days in a week (workers can work an extra one or two hours on the working day) to minimize movement of people.
  • Turning any spare space into Isolation Wards
    Companies can have additional features such as in house testing and factory ambulance to take workers to hospitals.

Shahi Exports’ final Standard Operating Procedures on reopening all 50+ of their factories in India were largely guided by the efforts and insights from the hackathon. The following pictures depict some of the steps being implemented at the factories to keep workers safe as they come back to work.

Resources and References:

We all know that the economic effects of COVID-19 have been unprecedented. In this context, many civil society and foundations have come together to raise funds for workers affected by the economic crises. We have listed a few organizations that are doing some incredible work in this space and also good resources for those keen to get regular updates about the garment manufacturing industry in India.

Call for Global Action: Given by ILO, IOE, and ITUC to work with governments and financial institutions to mobilise funding for the manufacturing industry to tide over their economic losses.

Fair Wear’s COVID-19 Dossier: Fair Wear is regulating updating information on the impact of lockdown ensued to contain the spread of COVID-19 on the garment industry in India and the measures proposed by several State Governments.

COVID-19 Support Fund by FDCI: The Fashion Design Council of India has started an initiative to raise funds for small fashion houses and young designers whose businesses have been impacted by the lockdown.

Image credits: Nayantara Parikh, Shahi Exports Pvt. Ltd.
Illustration credits: Siddhesh Gautam


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