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Global businesses must prioritise soap and water for workers in a post COVID-19 world

by Ruth Romer | @wateraidpress | WaterAid
Monday, 15 June 2020 15:54 GMT

WaterAid/Drik/Parvez Ahmad. Workers at a ready-made garment factory wash hands having learned about importance of handwashing through hygiene behaviour training. Narayanganj, Bangladesh. 2020

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, global supply chains have experienced extreme disruption as a result of lockdown measures, designed to curb the virus. As global corporations turn their attention to implementing COVID-19 resilient practices to safely re-establish suspended business operations, hygiene has become a board-level priority.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has called for employment policies to respond to impacts of COVID-19 in the recovery of workplaces, but so far, these mostly focus on protecting employment, rather than on conditions for working. But an improvement to labour standards must include prioritised action with regards to the health and hygiene of workers.

Physical distancing and handwashing are the first line of defence against the spread of infection and should form the foundation of return to work practices.

These measures have been a life-saving non-drug intervention during the pandemic, but for millions of workers employed in apparel and agriculture supply chains in the global south, it won’t be simple for them to be implemented.

In low and middle-income countries throughout Asia and Africa, millions of people living in densely populated settings face a unique challenge: unavoidable physical proximity coupled with a lack of life-saving access to clean water to wash hands and good hygiene awareness to know when to. These countries are home to the local field and factory operations of many global supply chains, and the people at risk are the workers who businesses rely on.

Action on water, sanitation and hygiene will safeguard the health of millions, as well as protecting companies against operation and financial risk.

Through this lens, the health of tea pickers, farmers, artisans, ready-made garment factory and other supply chain workers in the global south, underpin the potential for global business and economic resilience post COVID-19.

For companies with global supply chains who have experienced immense logistical and financial disruption, the intersection between workforce health and economic prosperity has been made abundantly clear. Globally, it has been estimated that every dollar invested in clean water, good hygiene and decent toilets returns $5.50 in increased productivity, and now, these basic services are more important than ever.

COVID-19 has presented an undeniable business case for companies with global supply chains to lead transformation within water, sanitation and hygiene. 

Employing tailored, sector and workplace specific WASH interventions - including improved access to clean water, hygiene behaviour training and physical distancing procedures - is paramount to the potential of the sustained reopening and operation of global businesses. This is vital not only within the supply chain, but beyond the operational fence line in the surrounding communities where workers live, to reinforce workplace resilience.

WaterAid has established relationships with a number of apparel factories in Bangladesh and India, where we have worked with partners to provide water, sanitation and hygiene access to workers, and on intensive hygiene behaviour change campaigns for both those employed in the factories, and the surrounding communities.

Following the emergence of COVID-19 in Bangladesh, we installed additional handwashing facilities and delivered a COVID-19 specific hygiene campaign reaching more than 20,000 workers within one week.  These apparel factories which power a large section of the economy are beginning to reopen and we’re ensuring WASH is part of the stringent safety precautions being taken.

WaterAid has launched guidance to businesses, Prioritising hygiene for workforce health and business resilienceand is inviting companies to work with them to bring sustainable changes within their supply chains that will improve resilience and productivity.

As partner of global governments in their fight against COVID-19 -  and with a decade-long history of helping supply chain workers gain access to clean water and good hygiene with the support of global partners including Diageo, Gap Inc, H&M, Unilever, Twinings and HSBC - WaterAid is uniquely positioned to support the private sector to build long-term resilience through the implementation of business and people critical supply chain WASH plans.

Ruth Romer is a Senior Private Sector Advisor at WaterAid UK. To discuss water, sanitation and hygiene management strategy and bespoke materials tailored to your company, contact corporate@wateraid.org.