Global pandemic further exposes plight of precarious workers, says Oxfam Ireland

Global pandemic further exposes plight of precarious workers, says Oxfam Ireland

  • International Workers Day: Billions of workers face uncertain future

  • Global inequality must be tackled head-on in post-COVID-19 world

On International Worker’s Day, Oxfam Ireland are calling on governments worldwide to mobilise to levels never seen before to support poorer countries with their COVID-19 response and prevent global economic collapse.

COVID-19 lockdowns have had a huge impact on workers across the globe. 1.25 billion workers from sectors in decline such as restaurants and retail (which employ millions of often low paid and low skilled workers) and the 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy have been the worst hit.  As governments around the globe begin to lift restrictions, millions of poor and desperate workers are at increased risk of exploitation as they search for work.

Ahead of International Workers Day, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) released its latest data on the labour market impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It reveals the devastating impact on workers in the informal economy and on hundreds of millions of businesses the world over - warning that “1.6 billion workers in the informal economy – that is nearly half of the global workforce – stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed”.

Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland said: “Across the world, millions of workers are being sent home as businesses close and supply lines dry up as a result of COVID-19. Informal work accounts for 90 per cent of employment in low-income countries - where women make up 92 per cent of workers in the informal sector and are far more likely not to have any employment rights or protections. The sad reality is, women are more at risk during this pandemic and this risk can be both physical and economic.

“Even in the richest countries, workers cannot afford to take time off. Taxi drivers, whether in Chicago or Kenya, have no choice but to go to work if they want to feed their families.

“Hotel cleaners, street sweepers, delivery drivers, waiters, retail assistants, agricultural workers and street sellers do not have the luxury of being able to work from home – and many informal workers now hold up our world.”

The ILO has called for urgent measures to support workers and businesses globally – with a focus on small businesses and people in the informal economy. There is an urgent need to protect the most vulnerable and ensure their rights are upheld.

Oxfam Ireland welcomes the ILO’s call for economic reactivation, which includes a job-rich approach, stronger employment policies and protections, and better resourced social protection systems – investment in universal services such as health and education is also vital to rebuild.

Oxfam’s recent report – Dignity not Destitution - calls for an ‘Emergency Rescue Package for All’, that meets the scale of the crisis, mobilising at least US$2.5 trillion dollars to tackle the pandemic. It prioritises helping people directly, including by providing cash grants to those who have lost their income and to bail out vulnerable small businesses. Debt cancellation for poorer countries will be critical in achieving an effective and sustainable recovery globally. This must be done in ways that radically reduce inequality and lay the foundations for a more human economy.

Clarken concluded: “The choices being made now and in the coming months will have profound implications for our collective future. They can lay the foundations for a more equal and sustainable world, or they can accelerate and perpetuate the inequalities and injustices this crisis has made all the more evident. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, it’s vital we choose the former.”


Caroline Reid |  | +353 (0) 87 912 3165
Alice Dawson-Lyons | | +353 (0) 83 198 1869

Notes to the Editor:

• Jim Clarken is available for interview

• Download: Dignity not Destitution report

Case Study

Workers rights: How Dhaka’s Garment Workers are some of the hardest hit

83 per cent of Bangladesh’s total exports are ready-made garments, accounting for five per cent of the global garment trade - and with an available, young, and cheap workforce Bangladesh is an attractive and competitive option for large western fashion brands.

“Brands and buyers are getting richer while we live in a cycle of poverty and our lives are stagnant. I hope things get better in the future…”

~ Labonie Akter lives in a Dhaka slum with her sister. Her husband is a rickshaw puller and lives in their original village with her son. Her son was four when she left and he is now 10.

83 per cent of Bangladesh’s total exports are ready-made garments, accounting for five per cent of the global garment trade - and with an available, young, and cheap workforce Bangladesh is an attractive and competitive option for large western fashion brands.

There is an estimated four million garment workers in Bangladesh - 80% of whom are women. Nine in 10 people working in this industry live in poverty earning an average salary of €24 a week or €4 a day, with some earning as little as €3 a day.

Much like other capital cities across the world, rents are high. Workers tend to share their living space – often a single room - with up to five other people. As COVID-19 infiltrates our towns and cities, this type of cohabitation now poses new challenges in containing spread and maintaining physical distance.

The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the global garment supply chains, resulting in over one million garment workers being fired or furloughed in Bangladesh. All parties are feeling the impact of Covid-19, however not all parties are equal. Factories operate on paper-thin margins and have far less access to capital than their customers, and workers very rarely earn enough to accumulate any savings. Due to order cancellation or postponement by big brands, workers have been told to return home with no money.

“Death from Coronavirus is a maybe, but death from not earning is certain”.

It is worth noting that three of the richest men in the fashion industry are worth over 100 billion dollars while the women at the bottom of the supply chain are paid a pittance.

Oxfam have a Living Wage campaign for women’s economic empowerment. Working with partners, including the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity and the Bangladesh Institute for Labour Studies, they work for decent employment, safe workplaces, a living wage and social protection. Most workers earn 8,300 Taka (€90) per year, but need 16,000 Taka for a living wage - which would cover basic needs such as food, health care, education, clothing and transport.

International pressure is helping and the government set up a special task force on wages. However, big brands should use their influence to ensure collective bargaining is respected and should invest a portion of their profits in improving the industry. Currently, two per cent of the retail price of a typical garment goes to the women who make them - less than one per cent of the production cost would do the right thing if brands absorbed it. We want brands to commit to a living wage and publish a timetable for a transparent supply chain. Big brands have a responsibility for ensuring workers rights.


Posted In: