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LONDON – Civil society groups are calling on governments, brands and employers to protect supply chain workers from the economic and health impacts of COVID-19. The call comes amid lay-offs and the threat of closure at garment factories in the likes of Myanmar, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. All are suffering a two-pronged threat of a lack of raw materials from China to fulfil orders combined with dwindling sales as brands scale back orders amid deserted high streets in key European markets such as Italy.

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC, and Phil Bloomer, executive director of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, claim steps should be taken to protect workers. In an op-ed, they write: “As the economic and human rights impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak come into view, we are again seeing supply chain and frontline workers, alongside those in precarious and informal jobs, bear the worst impacts of a crisis. The ITUC and Business & Human Rights Resource Centre are receiving increasing and worrying reports of mass lay-offs without social protection; little or no sick pay for self-isolation; and service workers not receiving the same protective measures as customers.”

Workers in Asia are reporting accelerating mass lay-offs through factory shut-downs, and slow-downs, as the epidemic worsens. There are claims of factories using COVID-19 shut-downs to dodge union disputes, and health workers left vulnerable to infection through inadequate precaution by employers.

The op-ed continues: “The Cambodia Labour Confederation reported last week that 33 factories have already temporarily halted production and suspended the contracts of over 17,000 workers. If raw material shortages worsen, hundreds more factories could close by the end of March affecting thousands of workers. This is exacerbated by reduced orders by buyers as the virus has spread to major export markets in Europe and the USA.

“The same pattern is emerging across Asia, with reports of large numbers of factories threatening closure in Philippines, Myanmar (20 in Yangon as of last week), Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka (50 factories or more threatened with temporary closure as of last week). In these countries, both governments and brands are eerily quiet on the measures to be taken to protect workers from the epidemic and from worsening poverty.

“Workplaces are frontlines in the battle against the spread of COVID-19. The ITUC is calling for urgent measures to ensure that workers who display symptoms can receive free health care and take sick leave without fear of losing their jobs or incomes. Equally, companies need to ensure a duty of care for all their workers, including migrant workers.”


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