Worker Wellness and Organisational Barriers to COVID-19 Prevention Inside the Firm

Worker absenteeism is frequently listed by managers in labour-intensive manufacturing sectors as a major concern and COVID-19 raises the potential for outbreaks that cause mass absenteeism and severely disrupt production. Working in collaboration with their partner, a large garment manufacturing firm in Bangladesh, Laura Boudreau and Rachel Heath will collect anonymous reports of worker illness, which can be matched to daily, line-level production data, yielding precise estimates of the effect of worker illness on productivity, how the effect varies with conditions such as baseline productivity or manager ability, and the extent to which COVID-19 protection measures are associated with more or less severe productivity losses. The results will guide future exploration into interventions that could be effective at reducing worker illness and improving productivity.

This project will primarily estimate the effects of illness on productivity. To construct measures of productivity that are comparable across lines making different types of garments, a standard measure of efficiency - actual quantity produced divided by target quantity- is used. The measure of worker illness will come from reports from a phone survey of a stratified sample of workers across ten factories each with an average of 40 production lines each. Line level fixed effects will account for time-invariant differences in line-level productivity and its workers’ susceptibility to illness. The researchers identify the effects of illness by exploiting within-factory, daily variation in whether the line has experienced any COVID-19 symptoms yet.

This project helps policy-makers design methods of COVID-safe production in low income countries. The ability to keep up manufacturing activity is particularly important, given that extreme social distancing measures are likely counterproductive in areas where most people live hand-to-mouth and work cannot easily be shifted to workers’ homes. Indeed, the government of Bangladesh exempted garment factories from the lockdown it has implemented. Given that garment manufacturing is continuing, it is particularly important to do so in a way that minimizes the spread of COVID-19. This research will estimate both the effects of COVID-19 on production and suggest policies that factories can use to prevent its spread


Laura Boudreau

Columbia University

Rachel Heath

University of Washington