South and Southeast Asian Workers Grapple with Management, Government, Coronavirus

Dalit sanitation worker in a PPE suit accepting trash in yellow bags by hand from the home of a coronavirus patient

Dalit (formerly known as “untouchable”) contract sanitation workers in Mumbai are being asked to clear garbage from homes where coronavirus patients live. Photo: Kachara Vahatuk Shramik Sangh.

Workers in South and Southeast Asia are facing challenges from the coronavirus and their governments’ responses to the crisis like job loss, being robbed of wages, and lack of control over when and how they work in a time of social distancing. Here's a round-up.

Tens of thousands of tea plantation workers in the Syllhet and Habiganj districts in northeastern Bangladesh unilaterally declared a holiday in late March out of fear of catching COVID-19. The tea workers, most of whom earn less than $1 a day, are being told by management to continue their physically grueling labor despite the risk of exposure. The rest of the country is on a ten-day national holiday declared by the government. “Tea workers earn too little and live in unsanitary and overcrowded houses. If the virus infects tea workers, it will be disastrous for the community,” said Pankaj Kanda, vice president of a tea workers’ union.

Also in Bangladesh, one million garment workers have been furloughed or laid off because North American and European brands have invoked clauses in their contracts to cancel orders and are refusing to place new ones. The garment industry is a primary driver of the economy and millions of people depend on garment workers’ wages. On average, the mostly female Bangladeshi garment workers make less than $100 per month. Those workers who are still employed are working in fear of contracting COVID-19 in work and transportation conditions that don’t allow social distancing. Some news outlets have reported that Bangladesh could see up to two million people die from the disease if there is a major outbreak there.

Disruptions in the global garment industry and management’s willingness to pass costs on to workers are also evident in Cambodia’s garment sector, where nearly 1,000 workers went on indefinite strike outside a Phnom Penh factory. The workers were protesting management’s failure to pay wages, which management says it cannot do because money has not come in. As of April 1, at least 91 garment factories have been shuttered, with the government pledging to pay the wages of the 61,500 workers affected.

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Many of Myanmar’s 500,000 garment workers have already been laid off, and factories are expected to be ordered temporarily closed nationwide soon. Myanmar factory workers are facing a double threat in hazardous working conditions and looming financial hardship once workplaces shut down. Those garment workers still working face highly unsafe conditions, with inadequate PPE and no social distancing. Earlier demands from garment unions to shut down the factories out of safety concerns did not lead to immediate action from factory owners and the government. Several owners have also seized the opportunity to attack garment worker unions, dismissing all unionized workers while retaining non-union ones. Many unions fear owners will attempt to discard more unions upon future reopening of the factories. —Andrew Tillett-Saks

The stringent lockdown of Indian society by the right-wing government last month left hundreds of thousands of migrant workers stranded without work or transportation back to their home villages and towns. Doctors and nurses who treat COVID-19 patients have become targets of social castigation like spitting and evictions. As in other countries, the pre-existing fault lines of society have been laid bare by the pandemic and the government’s response. Dalit (formerly known as “untouchable”) contract sanitation workers in Mumbai are being asked to clear garbage from homes where coronavirus patients live. They have been provided with PPE, but say they have not been trained on how to use the gear properly, and have been told to reuse disposable suits, masks, and gloves. When the workers asked the city government why they had to reuse the equipment, they were told that new suits, at $36 each day per worker, would be too expensive.

The partial lockdown of Bangkok and order by the Thai Interior Ministry to close 18 border points taking effect on March 23 triggered a mass exodus of migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, with estimates ranging between 60,000 and 200,000 people having left the country. Few were able to practice social distancing in the crowded bus stations and border areas, raising fears of infection. The Myanmar and Cambodian embassies in Thailand are urging migrant workers to not return home in order to avoid spreading the virus. The Thai government declared a state of emergency effective from March 26 to April 30 with most types of businesses closed—except for banks, hotels, health care facilities, factories, and the postal service. —Kim Rogovin, International Labor Rights Forum

The Philippines government declared a lockdown March 17, halting public transportation and shutting down most industries, aside from those deemed essential. But the country’s call center industry—the largest in the world—was allowed to remain open. The BPO Industry Employees Network (BIEN) reported in late March that many call center workers were being forced to come to work, continuing to share headsets and unable to practice social distancing. More than half said that they had no option to work from home. A petition by the organization to suspend on-site work and set up work-from home arrangements, guarantee workers’ incomes, and provide free mass testing has reached almost 10,000 signatures. The Financial Times reported last week that workers at contractor Teleperformance who are handling calls about Amazon’s Ring security cameras are sleeping on office floors and treadmills in cramped conditions, faced with the choice of doing that or forgoing their income. Also in the Philippines, about 17,000 people among the urban poor have been arrested while violating the lockdown to find food.