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Community Contribution

Women Workers Respond

Jan 12, 2021
Diana Wu

This story is part of CARE's Women Respond series, which is an initiative to learn from and amplify the direct perspectives, experiences and priorities shared by poor and working-class women facing COVID-19 across the geographies where CARE works.

Migrant workers – those leaving their homes to find income through a range of work such as making clothes for the global garment industry and tending others’ homes and families – have faced particular threats through the COVID-19 pandemic. These threats have impacts that ripple from their own lives to their home communities. To inform response and advocacy work, CARE’s Women Respond initiative examined how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted women workers’ lives.

Since April last year, CARE surveyed over 2400 workers across Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ecuador, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to learn about the impact of the pandemic on them. Many of these workers typically leave rural areas to take jobs in cities as garment factory or domestic workers or informal work. Some workers had crossed national borders to find jobs and secure income to send back home, putting them at greater risk as migrants. As migrants, we know these workers face further risk as their jobs fall disproportionately in the informal economy, and they may face further isolation and risk with fewer social support networks, limited access to governmental resources and services – and at times criminalization – due to their legal status.

CARE’s surveys reported that the largest impacts of the pandemic on migrant workers’ lives have been on cash, food security, mental health and physical health/care:

Digging deeper, stories from women highlight how the responsibility to meet household needs around education, food and health fall disproportionately on their time and labor. In Ecuador and Vietnam, CARE staff and partners have also found escalated risk of violence – often at the hands of intimate partners and within the workplace. In Vietnam, reported rates of domestic violence has nearly doubled since COVID-19. While surveys do not report gendered violence highly, it is broadly recognized that experiences of intimate partner violence are severely underreported.

Looking closer at the responses from each country, it is also important to note that the impact of COVID-19 varies vastly across each of the countries in terms of cases and deaths among the places polled. As of December 8, 2020, Cambodia and Laos report 0 deaths, while Vietnam and its population of nearly 100 million reported 35 deaths. In contrast, the toll of COVID-19 fell more heavily on Ecuador, Myanmar and Bangladesh where thousands – and in the case of Ecuador tens of thousands – of lives had been lost due to COVID-19.

With stark differences in these realities, there were some variations in responses country by country. In Myanmar, factory workers reported materials for protection from COVID-19 as the greatest priority for 53% of respondents. At the same time, however, economic security remained a critical stressor across all countries. For those hit hardest by COVID-19, the threats of – and lockdowns in response to – COVID-19 pushed workers into further precarity, with workplace shutdowns, reduced hours, and layoffs. As one garment factory worker from Myanmar described, “During COVID, our family income drastically reduced as my brothers lost their jobs. I became the main earner to support my family and I needed to send money back to my family every month. I cannot go back home. My salary is less than before, and I also have family back home depending on my salary. … Because of COVID-19 cases increasing in Myanmar, the government announced the closure of factories to control people gathering. When the factories reopened, there is no overtime requirement and we get smaller wages.” 

For domestic workers, lockdowns have meant further confinement in the home according to CARE staff and unions supporting domestic workers in Ecuador, increasing further social isolation and risk of abuse as they lock down in their employers’ home. Some have reported being forced to care for people with COVID-19 without any protection, jeopardizing their lives and those of their families. In Ecuador, 89% do not have social security, and 19% work more than 40 hours a week for just $186.89.

Unstable work and access to cash has had clear impacts on education, health, food access, stress and anxiety, and conflicts within the home, according to women workers across Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ecuador, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar. Through these times, women across all sites reported the remittances they send to loved ones declined and 59% of women shared plans to migrate back to their hometowns. Since COVID-19 restrictions were introduced across the Mekong region, 100,000 Laotian migrant workers have already returned to Laos. Some migrant workers across Laos and Myanmar, however, noted with less access to income, they were unable to return home even if they wanted to. In many countries in the Mekong region, people who returned to rural areas reported facing stigmatization and suspicion, as communities worried that migrants brought COVID-19 with them.

To meet needs through these times, these women workers have taken a number of measures. According to the survey, 66% mentioned social distancing and adopting strict hygiene practices to stay safe, with reports from Bangladesh noting that uncertain jobs have meant uncertain access to health insurance or care. To meet financial needs, 87% reported diversifying income through small businesses and 59% planned to migrate elsewhere. Workers across countries also reported taking on debt and selling assets/belongings to meet basic needs. Workers surveyed across Bangladesh (97%), Vietnam (90%) and Cambodia (84%) reported changing their food consumption patterns and eating less, and workers in Laos and Myanmar named food as a priority need. In Ecuador, colleagues reported that some poor migrants have entered sex work, often in ways that expose them to greater risks of exploitation, transmission of sexual infection and unwanted pregnancies in addition to COVID risk.

These stories highlight the interconnectedness of lives and the domino effect of struggles throughout the pandemic. Beyond seeing COVID-19’s impact on work in both formal and informal workplaces, women’s stories highlight how losses in work impact their homes and those they support. At the same time, cuts in access to income and healthcare can spiral into crises in food, housing and physical as well as mental health. These stories also show how the impacts of COVID-19 fall most heavily on women workers as they face not only uncertain incomes to meet their own needs, but increased work at home, deeper crisis for loved ones who have relied on their income and increased gender-based violence. These times call for robust responses that support poor and working-class people to meet needs in ways that don’t drive them into further precarity but position them to move forward – individually and collectively.