The impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on leather workers in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the garment and footwear industry, particularly on workers. The Corona chronicles bring to light the dramatic consequences of the crisis on leather workers in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India by portraying six of them. They speak about their experiences during the first lockdowns in 2020 and how the pandemic has affected them in terms of employment, livelihoods, rights, and how they fear for the future.

Millions of people worldwide work to produce leather garments, leather footwear and leather accessories. This global production network includes various phases, from animal husbandry to slaughter; from the tanning of raw hides to the finishing of leather; from the cutting of leather components to the production of a wide variety of leather end-goods, such as jackets, trousers, shoes, gloves, bags, trunks, and accessories.

With the coronavirus outbreak, production came to an abrupt halt. The international transport system, including container shipping, was completely upset. Supply chains were disrupted due to a lack of inputs and later on by the cancellation of orders by brands and retailers.

The six stories in this paper – composed by SOMO – were selected from a substantial number of interviews conducted by BLF in June 2020 in Bangladesh, by Cividep in July 2020 in India, and by NOW Communities in September 2020 in Pakistan. Both Cividep and BLF have published reports and analyses about the impacts of coronavirus on garment and leather workers in India and Bangladesh.

Added to these worker testimonies, the paper presents a set of recommendations to governments and businesses, to ensure better protection of workers’ rights.

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The story of Amrita – India

Amrita is a 50-year-old widow who works in a shoe factory in Ambur, a city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The Corona pandemic has had a dramatic impact on Amrita’s life. When her workplace closed, Amrita lost out on her wages. She and her family suffered from hunger and she got herself into debt. Since the factory reopened, Amrita has had to work longer hours for less wages.

Single earner

As a single earner, Amrita takes care of a son and a daughter. Amrita lives with her son; her daughter is studying to become a nurse. When the Indian government proclaimed the lockdown in March 2020, Amrita’s daughter was doing an internship away from home. With the sudden lockdown, her internship was abruptly called off, and with the transport system not operating, she could not come back home. Amrita had to pay for her daughter’s accommodation in a hostel, expenses that were way above her budget.

Amrita lives in a modest rental house in Ambur. When Amrita’s wages were cut, she still had to pay full rent. The family received a one-time payment of 1,000 rupees as emergency relief from the state government, which was welcome but far from enough to make up for the financial hardship they faced.

The lockdown and the financial stress were also felt in other ways. The marriage of Amrita’s son had to be postponed. Big gatherings were not allowed during the lockdown and the marriage was not financially feasible either. In the same period, the family could not attend the funeral of a relative, as there was no way to reach the ceremony location.

Amrita’s factory

The factory where Amrita is working produces uppers for women shoes. Amrita’s job is fusing, putting together the leather parts. This factory is part of a big privately-owned group, which owns several companies. The group produces shoes for men and women as well as finished leather, both for the domestic market and for export destinations.

Massive lay-offs

When Amrita’s factory reopened in late May 2020, Amrita could resume her job. Many co-workers, however, were not called back. Of the 1,500 people working in her factory almost half of the workers were laid off after the lockdown was lifted. Before the Corona crisis the factory had 15 production lines; now only six or seven lines were kept running. Temporary workers and helpers were most affected; they were dismissed first. The factory management told the workers that the dismissals were the result of a reduced number of orders and that the factory would make losses if the entire workforce was kept on. Dismissed workers did get a sum of money as compensation, the amount depending on the time they had worked for the factory, but definitely not enough to make up for the loss of employment.

Health and safety measures

One point that Amrita was positive about were the health and safety measures that were introduced by management in the factory. She mentioned the screening of workers’ temperatures and the provision of sanitizer at the compound’s entrance. Workers are instructed to wear masks, and keep a safe distance from each other. Inside the factory, however, no additional facilities for washing hands have been installed.

More work, less pay

During lockdown, as well as since Amrita started working again, she has not received even a third of her normal salary and no festival bonuses. She said that she had no hopes to ever receive her back wages. After the factory reopened, management introduced a new workplan: Amrita now has to work nine hours every day, instead of the eight hours she used to work. This is six hours of extra work per week. The pay, however, is significantly less than before the lockdown. Instead of 7,000 INR (a mere 79 EUR) per month, Amrita now only gets 6,500 INR (73.4 EUR). Overtime hours are not paid at the proper rate. Amrita does not have an employment contract, so she cannot take formal legal action to address this.

Corona in India

The India garment and footwear sector has been badly affected by the Corona pandemic. Early 2020, the import of key inputs like chemicals, adhesives, dyes and footwear components such as soles, buttons and zippers was severely interrupted, which badly impacted production capacity in the various leather hubs in India. The lockdowns in the US and the EU in the first quarter of 2020, including closure of retail shops, further disturbed production the sector, as it brought the demand for leather products to an immediate halt. As a result, many factories and workplaces in India closed. Late March 2020, the Government of Indian called for the first domestic lockdown, causing further havoc to India economy. In April 2021, a new wave of the Covid pandemic hit the country, forcing the country again into regional lockdown. Only since early June 2021, with case numbers declining, Indian states started easing lockdowns.

Trends in production and trade: Leather products from India

The leather sector in India takes up a prominent place in the country’s economy. It is known for its high consistency in export earnings and is placed in the top 10 of foreign exchange earners for India. This overview of trends in the production of leather and leather goods in India bundles together information on key products produced in India, as well as key export markets for its leather and leather goods. The report maps key leather manufacturers and buying companies.

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Together for Decent Leather launch

On Tuesday 10 November, a European-Asian consortium of seven civil society organisations has launched the three-year programme ‘Together for Decent Leather’. The Together for Decent Leather consortium aims to improve the living and working conditions of workers in the leather value chain. During the launch, consortium members shared their knowledge about the leather industry in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, the impact of Corona pandemic in the leather sector, labour rights challenges for leather workers in the three focus countries and what the programme aims for.

Problems in the leather-based industry

In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of people work in dire circumstances to produce leather-based garment, footwear and accessories. The problems they face include poverty wages, forced overtime, social security and child labour. Workers have health issues because of working with toxic substances and unsafe heavy machinery, often without adequate protective equipment. They also suffer from social exclusion and discrimination based on class, caste, origin, ethnicity, gender and religion. Specifically vulnerable groups are women workers, Dalits and Muslims, migrants, and homeworkers. Workers in this sector do not enjoy the fundamental enabling rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining.

The launch

During the online launch twenty-six interested participants from diverse backgrounds, among which NGOs, the private sector, governments and research organisations, engaged with the consortium to learn about and discuss challenges in the leather value chain in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Leather goods supply chain – One of SOMO’s researchers shared insights into the leather goods supply chain, a complex system with a wide variety of actors involved, which include millions of workers. The lack of transparency in the supply chain makes it difficult to map out the exact relationships within the sector. Yet SOMO provided a clear and comprehensive overview of the leather sector in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan and Bangladesh and share of international exports.

Corona impact on the leather industry – Subsequently, the impact of Corona on the workers in the leather-based industry was reported on. The Corona pandemic led to massive dismissals of leather workers, loss of income, union busting and abuse by creditors. Moreover, measures to protect workers from getting infected are lacking and wages are not still back to pre-Corona level.

Labour rights challenges – In-depth presentations about the labour working conditions of homeworkers and workers in factories and tanneries shed more light into the challenges faced by these workers and supporting organisations in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Interesting discussions and exchanges with participants followed. Matters of caste discrimination, living wage projects, protection of homeworkers and trade unions were issues raised by participants and are taken on board by consortium members.

Programme aims – Together for Decent Leather is looking forward to further engage with participants and other stakeholders and work towards an ending of labour rights abuses in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The consortium demands state actors and the private sector to take responsibility by adhering to and promoting the highest international labour and human rights standards.

Possible measures to improve the situation for leather workers suggested include payment of living wages to all workers in the value chain, providing occupational health and safety measures, engaging in social dialogue with relevant stakeholders, implementing and enforcing robust labour law, ensuring transparency and traceability in the leather supply chain and performing thorough human rights due diligence in supply chain, including work carried out by sub-contractors and homeworking.

About the programme

This three year programme aims to improve working conditions and reduce labour rights abuses by promoting adherence to international labour standards and corporate social responsibility in leather based garment footwear and accessories value chains in production hubs in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The programme is organised by an European-Asian consortium, consisting of the following organisations: ARISA (the Netherlands), the Bangladesh Labour Foundation (BLF), Cividep India, INKOTA (Germany), NOW communities (Pakistan), SOMO (the Netherlands), Südwind (Austria).