How Companies are Adapting to Meet Worker Health Needs Amid COVID-19

Since 2019, 21 global businesses have made bold, expansive commitments to reach more than 2 million women workers and community members, primarily focused in 17 countries, with health and well-being information and services. These commitments signify a growing movement in the private sector to meet women where they are – in the workplace – with the health care they need and deserve, helping support a healthy and productive workforce.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, each company faced its own challenges -- the pandemic shut down workplaces, ground supply chains to a halt, and took the economy into a downturn. A year and a half later, while the economic situation may have stabilized somewhat, multiple waves of infection in country after country continue to disrupt business and more importantly injure workers, particularly women, through lost employment, increased violence and abuse, loss of access to reproductive and other health services, mental health problems, and the death of peers and loved ones. Health is now a recognized business risk. The pandemic has heightened not just concerns about worker health but also awareness of the systemic barriers to the health and well-being of workers.

The Universal Access Project, through its Private Sector Action for Women’s Health and Empowerment initiative, has taken the pulse of commitment-makers and understood how their current reality compares to the goals they had outlined at the time of their initial commitments. Through the businesses’ self-reporting, the 2021 Progress Report found that all 21 companies and business organizations stand by their commitments, even though the timetable and path for achieving their goals have lengthened and taken new turns for most. The report provides insight into where companies stand on worker health, what their challenges are, and how they are adjusting their approaches to the new realities under the pandemic. Most companies have not yet been able to reach their original goals for women’s health training, education, and services. All have had to adapt.

Although the future is still unclear, one thing is certain: we are all operating in a new reality.

In the last year, commitment-makers took various steps to respond to the pandemic and adapt to new realities, and these actions suggest the possible contours of a post-pandemic world. The health focus, justifiably, has been on COVID-19 prevention and care and the emergency needs of workers and communities. Notably, for many companies, the structures and personnel used for their health education and empowerment trainings could be repurposed for their pandemic response, a foundation for a wide range of responses and experimentation on workplace approaches. Some created COVID-19 emergency response committees, used the workplace for vaccinations and services, increased focus on gender-based violence and mental health support, piloted or expanded telemedicine, and increased outreach to government services. In one telling example of leveraging skills and program capabilities for emergency support, Share Hope employed its staff and team of P.A.C.E.-trained workers to pull together fully-equipped and locally sourced care packages – duffel bags – for 1,000 families needing assistance in Haiti after the August 2021 earthquakes.

As the pandemic interrupted plans on women’s health, several trends among the commitment-makers emerged:

1. Developing virtual learning models and service delivery. This was already starting to take place as a way to reduce the cost and worktime interruption of training and worker education. But the pandemic has accelerated that process, through which virtual learning has served as a safe mode of worker interaction and information. E-learning has been a major focus of those in apparel (but is it certainly not exclusive to this sector), like Arvind, Farida, Inditex, MAS Holding, Shahi, and EPHEA, which have worked on transitioning from on-site to virtual trainings and education. Several have used WhatsApp as a tool for quick information and awareness-raising. Others have used tablets and online platforms or both. A major interest has been to improve the effectiveness of pictures and videos for learning. Several companies plan to work with Nivi, an online platform for family planning information and referrals to service providers. It is clear that the future of workplace training will be some blend of in-person and virtual training.

2. Strengthening programs and systems. While workplace interventions were interrupted or slowed due to safety concerns and production pressures, companies worked to improve their programs and systems. Shahi developed a model of peer groups of no more than 10 people for discussion on reproductive health and other sensitive topics. Realizing that onsite training of the Gap Inc. program, Professional Advancement and Career Enhancement (P.A.C.E.), was not possible in its partner factories, Share Hope turned to training unemployed women, introducing them to hiring managers after their successful completion of training. APPL and Del Monte saw the need for menstrual hygiene products at work and in the community; women leaders at tea plucking sites now carry pads for any woman who needs them at work. Del Monte distributed 5,200 packages of sanitary pads to 900 teenage girls to help curb the high rate of menstruation-related absenteeism at local schools. Arvind improved its program design with its training partners to create greater flexibility and adaptability in preparation for future challenges, and it standardized its operating procedures. PVH invested in its online platform to capture key performance indicators and enable the monitoring of outcomes for P.A.C.E. trainings, working with vendors to integrate P.A.C.E into human resources and management systems. Twinings invested in building the capacity of local health providers as well as the supporting health staff at their tea estates. Inditex was part of a collaboration with other brands as part of the Industry Summit to adopt a gender self-diagnosis tool developed by the International Center for Research of Women and piloted it in three factories. Several companies, including PVH and Nordstrom, are supporting the Empower@Work collaborative, a training platform for collective action on women’s empowerment.

3. Deepening partnerships. All the commitment-makers enjoy strong partners, and it is clear that their partnerships played an important role in their responses to COVID-19 and ongoing program activities. BSR’s HERproject, the Better Work program, Swasti, and St. John’s Medical College have been leaders in developing e-learning approaches and tele-medicine. Many other partners have played significant roles during the pandemic, working with companies in this report to address worker needs.

In the face of this new reality, more companies are joining the movement. In 2021 alone, six commitments from Tata Coffee Ltd., one of the world’s largest integrated coffee companies; KTDA Foundation, the not-for-profit subsidiary of the Kenya Tea Development Agency; Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL), the second-largest tea producer in India; Arvind Ltd., a global textiles leader; Novartis sub-Saharan Africa, a division of a global pharmaceutical company; and Mt. Kenya West Women in Coffee (WESTWIC), a women-led membership organization of coffee estates and cooperatives in Kenya outlined plans to reach hundreds of thousands of women workers with health and well-being information and services.

The goal of the Private Sector Action initiative is to promote corporate action that supports meaningful change for women workers, their health, safety, and professional advancement. The hope is that the pandemic will lead to a stronger commitment to and investment in these areas, with a focus on management systems and accountability.