Nova Ahmed, Rahat Rony, Kimia Zaman
What's going to happen to these garment workers? It was a question from my young colleagues Rahat and Kimia. We were working with garment workers in Bangladesh, where the garment industry is one of the leading economic sectors, with around 4 million workers involved in over 5,800 factories . But it was more than work. During our qualitative studies in January and February 2020, we spent weekends with them in their homes. We heard about their dreams, hopes, and aspirations; their mundane days and their frustrations. If you are a qualitative researcher, you will know what this is like; for others, I want to say it is like we have brought parts of them—their feelings—back here with us. When the first Covid-19 patient was acknowledged in Bangladesh in March 2020, all we could think about was their congested houses, dense workplaces, and lack of savings for healthcare and emergency support.
Before going into their current concerns and design-related possibilities, we'd like to take you into their homes (Figures 1 and 2). We talked to 55 garment workers in the urban areas of Mirpur within Dhaka city and the suburbs of Ashulia and Gazipur during January and February 2020. These workers do not live in the slums, but their houses are in areas with congested multistoried buildings, one very close to the other. Many of these buildings are not fully complete, often lacking paint and railings on staircases. Each floor of the building holds three to four rooms—sometimes five to six rooms—with a family living in each room. All of the houses we visited, however, had a very complete and elaborate kitchen and washroom, shared across families. Families live together with individual dreams and concerns, but with shared support for each other.
|Figure 1. The surrounding area in Gazipur where many garment workers reside; our interview took place in the rightmost corner space. February 2020.|
|Figure 2. A discussion in Mirpur, Dhaka. February 2020.|
Having had the critical experience of working with women before, we were expecting the struggles of female garment workers that are common in our region . But the baseline employment scenario is different here; job security is higher for women in the garment industry, in which they make up 90 percent of the workforce . The priority given to women shows up at home, where their stable jobs are accepted and their spouses take other responsibilities, many struggling to maintain a continuous flow of income. In these homes, we saw signs of blossoming equality.
It is a positive insight to note that women are more empowered in this sector and can play a significant role in families, but the picture is not so flowery when looking at the Covid-19 pandemic. This community does not save anything for their healthcare, investing more in children and at most for possibly buying a cow in their village, while using their regular income to support their daily lives. Women work together in the shared kitchen, which is why the social distancing required for safety during Covid-19 does not make sense here under current living conditions.
When the government-imposed lockdown started in Bangladesh in early April, all garment factories were closed immediately without providing wages. Though the garment industry associations promised that all workers would be paid their wages in a timely fashion, the reality is that very few factories paid their workers their full salaries. Some of the workers we talked to previously reached out to us during the lockdown in Bangladesh, sharing their daily anxieties. They were staying in their residences, still waiting for the garment factories to reopen. We have also seen in the media that many garment workers gathered and protested for their wages during this lockdown period, without maintaining any kind of social distance.
Our ongoing support systems in Bangladesh are designed with a top-down approach—the solutions, helplines, and risk maps are generated by the authorities (https://corona.gov.bd/). There are also volunteers, foundations, and NGOs who work together or separately on support systems  and fundraising (https://choloshobai.com/wf-listing-page/), advertising heavily on Web platforms and social media. However, busy with their laborious day jobs, the garment-worker community have little exposure to the technology world . As we listened to the workers, following up during the pandemic, it was clear that they wanted to speak, to share how they have been feeling, but there is no such platform to share their voices and feelings. If the garment workers need emergency support, it will be challenging for them because they do not know what support systems are available. There is support for people in extreme poverty, as well as support for middle and upper-class people over technology platforms, but this community falls in between.
In Singapore, they tried to reduce the infection rate by tracking the cellphones of infected residents  and implementing quarantines by clustering the community around infected people. This technology is used by all citizens for healthcare needs, which is how they can separate the infected community and provide better support. But the context in developing nations is different. Most of the people here are poor and require financial support and measures to ensure food security. Nationwide lockdowns cause scarcity in low-income communities. Additionally, these communities have less access to technology. The SMS-based Ehsaas scheme is a cash-collection system for the poor people of Pakistan , but it is not feasible during the pandemic due to the lockdown. Thus, getting blessings from any deployed technology is a challenge.
It was clear that they wanted to speak, to share how they have been feeling, but there is no such platform to share their voices.
Yet a problem can open up design opportunities, eventually leading us to the day when we have solutions that are inclusive, open, and supportive. We need a design that incorporates workers' voices to generate a support system. The requirements will vary; one person might just want to share their feelings with someone, while another is looking for a way to secure food for the next month. There will be requirements for emotional support, as well as support in finding a healthcare provider. Though all the workers we spoke with owned mobile phones, they have a distant relationship with mobile technology. The support elements are present, but the connectors are missing. Current connections are one-directional, flowing from authorities toward the community. Most decisions depend on the authorities, which is why all communities are not treated equally. We need an easy-to-use interface that doesn't invade one's privacy, and that requires minimal technology access. It could be a phone number to call and share how one is feeling, or a virtual contact online.
We understand that the aspirations of this community have been deeply affected by the uncertainties stemming from the lack of proper support. There is a burning requirement to incorporate a communication link from the garment worker community to the supporting authorities. We believe that the post-Covid-19 days should be our days of hope.
3. Jafri, J. Coronavirus: How Pakistan is using technology to disperse cash to people in need. The Conversation. Apr. 1, 2020; https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-how-pakistan-is-using-technology-to-disperse-cash-to-people-in-need-134873
4. Kilgour, D. and Korah, S. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore: Success stories in the fight against Covid-19. Hong Kong Free Press. Apr. 10, 2020; https://hongkongfp.com/2020/04/10/taiwan-hong-kong-and-singapore-success-stories-in-fight-against-covid-19/
Nova Ahmed is a computer scientist in Bangladesh. Her focus is on feminist HCI and social justice. [email protected]
Rahat Jahangir Rony is a researcher working on the various problems of Bangladesh. [email protected]
Kimia Tuz Zaman is an emerging researcher working to solve the problems of Bangladesh. [email protected]
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