June 6, 2020

Industrial Hygienist Discusses Challenges of Reopening Global Supply Chains During COVID-19

By Kay Bechtold

On Wednesday morning of AIHce EXP, Garrett Brown, MPH, CIH, FAIHA, was one of three occupational hygienists who discussed challenges, successes, and considerations related to returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. His presentation focused primarily on how to safely reopen global supply chains and supply chain workers’ experience with COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had disproportionate health and economic effects on workers in certain racial and ethnic groups. Brown explained that economic and social conditions also contribute to a disproportionate burden of illness and death among some groups. For example, in the United States hospitalization and death rates among black Americans are substantially higher than for white or Asian populations. Brown, who is the founder and volunteer coordinator of the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network, also noted that some worker populations such as Latinos and immigrant workers are suffering very high rates of infection, disease, and death. He stressed that this experience is also occurring on a global level. For example, in Malaysia—which produces approximately two-thirds of the world supply of rubber gloves—migrant workers from Nepal, Bangladesh, and Indonesia face harsh, crowded factory and living conditions and a “system of forced labor and debt bondage.” Economic pressure from the European Union has exacerbated the issue, Brown said.

Mexico is also facing “tremendous pressure” from the outside, Brown said. The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the San Diego Chamber of Commerce have pressured Mexico to keep plants along the U.S.-Mexico border open during the pandemic. These facilities, or “maquiladoras,” are export processing plants owned and operated by U.S. companies that produce items such as medical products, auto parts, and electronics. More than one million workers are employed by these maquiladoras, Brown said. Workers in the maquiladoras face similar exposure risks as those in other global supply chains: they are subject to close quarters during transport to and from the factories, on the production floor, and in the cafeterias and break areas.

Mexico’s response to the pandemic has not been robust, Brown said, which has contributed to “substantial” deaths among production workers on the border. Workers have held more than 60 walkouts and wildcat strikes along the U.S.-Mexico border, with strikers asking, “Why should Mexican workers die for exports to the United States?” While some U.S. companies have promised new infection control measures for their plants, there is little or no local enforcement of those measures, Brown said.

The garment supply chain—particularly in Bangladesh, the world’s number two garment producer behind China—has also been hit hard by the pandemic. Garment exports from Bangladesh are critical to the country’s economy, representing more than 80 percent of its export revenues. Bangladesh is home to approximately 3,500 garment plants and 4 million garment workers. When the pandemic began, international clothing brands canceled more than $3 billion in orders, which Brown says affected 86 percent of the plants and caused 2.7 million workers to become jobless in April. These clothing brands have also withheld payment to the Bangladesh suppliers of both completed work and work in production. As a consequence, factories have no money to pay workers. Brown stated that as of May 4, more than 1,000 factories had not yet been paid by international brands for their March and April work, which left 30 percent of garment workers without pay—“an immense social, economic, and health crisis” for these workers. The factories began reopening on April 26 in part because of the competition between Bangladesh and other garment-producing countries, but Brown raised concerns that many of them are doing so with no infection controls.

Brown urged employers and others to refer to the many guidelines for reopening safely, specifically recommending two sets of guidelines for the garment industry produced by the Worker Rights Consortium in Washington, D.C., in collaboration with the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network, and by the International Labor Organization’s Better Work Program. He stressed key elements for the safe reopening of facilities, including effective infection control, recognition that an immediate return to pre-COVID-19 production levels is not possible, and the implementation of “new normal” controls. Brown discussed other considerations such as clear policies that mandate infection control over production; training and education for managers, supervisors, and the workforce; health status monitoring; physical distancing; cleaning and disinfection; ventilation, and personal protective equipment.

“Reopening can be done safely, but it cannot be done immediately to the level of production and productivity that was the normal before the pandemic,” Brown concluded.

Kay Bechtold is managing editor of The Synergist.