Pandemic hits garment workers in Asia particularly hard – The Diplomat

For 15 years, mum worked in one of Cambodia’s textile factories, subjected to grueling working hours and witnessing countless cases of exploitation at her workstation. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, his employment situation has deteriorated. Production targets increased from 350 to 400 items per hour, but her salary remained the same and she struggled to cope with the rising cost of living.

His story was collected by the NGO Action Aid Australia prepare the report »Fashion casualties: How garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia bear the cost of COVID-19published in December after interviews with more than 200 garment workers in the two countries.

The survey highlights the immense impact of the last two years on garment workers who manufacture branded garments exported to Europe and the United States, the garment sectors’ main export markets. in Cambodia and Bangladesh. The countries have two of the most textile-dependent economies in the world.

“When I saw supervisors exploiting the workers, I wanted to do something about it. When the workers demanded to leave when all their work was done, the supervisors would not let them and forced them to working overtime,” says Mom.

“I felt it was so wrong, but as workers we have no power to speak with the employer. So I decided to join CATU (the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions) to organize as a group to protect workers’ rights,” she said, quoted in the Action Aid Australia report.

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Mom was already living below minimum wage before the pandemic. As the virus spread to Cambodia, some brands began laying off garment workers due to supply chain disruptions, store closures and the economic downturn. With job cuts, pay cuts and rights at risk, workers have been pushed into poverty, hunger and debt, as Action Aid Australia detailed in the report.

Christie Miedema, Campaign and Outreach Coordinator Alliance Clean Clothes Campaignexplained in an email that at the start of the pandemic, in a fit of panic, many brands canceled all their orders, even those already in production.

“It meant a blow to factory owners, many of whom spent the next year making up for it,” Miedema said. As a result, desperate factory owners were “ready to accept any order and at any price a brand was willing to offer.

During the Delta wave, which hit Asia much harder than in Europe or the United States, where vaccination programs were gaining momentum, employers’ associations in many apparel countries therefore put pressure on their governments not to close their factories because they felt they could not afford to lose more orders, Miedema recalled.

April 2021 was particularly bad in Cambodia and Mom’s factory temporarily closed amid the COVID-19 surge. As a result, Mom lost her salary. Although she was able to access a $40 payment from the government, her employer refused to pay her anything.

Then Mom and CATU pleaded her case and the factory agreed to pay her 20% of her salary plus some benefits. She reached a total of $60, not enough to cover daily expenses.

As Michelle Higelin, Executive Director of Action Aid Australia, detailed in another email, there have been signs of recovery in the fashion industries in Bangladesh and Cambodia due to the reopening of stores in Europe and the United States. Still, the expert said the impacts of the pandemic “continue to devastate workers at the bottom of global supply chains”.

The main problem is low wages in the garment industry, which means that workers not only struggle to cover their daily living expenses, but are also unable to generate savings in the event of job loss or reduction in working hours.

As Higelin detailed, in Cambodia the average wage increased from $257 in January 2020 to $272 in August 2021. While the minimum wage was increased in 2021 to $192, this is lower than the increase in salary of 12 dollars per month demanded by the unions.

“Despite continued union action in Cambodia, wage increases have not kept pace with inflation and remain well below the living wage, which the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) has calculated at $588. in 2020,” Higelin said.

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AFWA is an Asia-led global labor and social alliance that has developed a methodology to calculate a living wage that would allow garment workers to earn enough to live in dignity.

In January 2020, Higelin added, only 2.2% of workers who took part in his NGO’s survey earned a living wage. More than double that figure, 5.6%, earned no more than minimum wage.

In Bangladesh, the average salary in January 2020 was $104 and in August 2021 it had fallen to $96. The minimum wage for the garment industry was set at $91 per month in 2018.

Higelin said the Bangladeshi government plans to raise the minimum wage in 2021 to $96 a month, a figure well below union demands and barely enough to keep up with inflation. However, private sector lobbying caused the government to delay raising the minimum wage, leaving workers to cover the rising cost of living from their already insufficient wages.

Before the pandemic, many garment factories in Cambodia did not stand up for workers’ rights. Now workers report that the situation is getting worse.

More than 90% of workers surveyed said they were more concerned about their job security since the pandemic hit. Meanwhile, 56% said their rights at work have deteriorated since the start of the pandemic, according to Action Aid Australia.

Many workers mentioned that they were afraid to complain and noted the personal consequences, such as being yelled at by their supervisor or being given an increased workload, if they raised issues related to workers’ rights.

Respondents also said that since the start of the pandemic, employers have taken too long to respond to complaints. However, with job security so precarious, most workers were afraid to stage a protest to pressure factories to address their concerns and demands.

Miedema said that although many brands are making big profits again, many factories are still suffering and workers will be the first to feel it.

She explained that the alliance she works for believes that there has been no real progress in measures to bring justice to workers or to ensure that the situation experienced by mum and other workers due to the pandemic will not happen again.

“That is why trade unions and labor organizations in various countries have launched a proposal for brands to sign a binding agreement in which they commit to paying the wages that workers have lost, to pour into a fund that would compensate the workers if a factory were to go bankrupt and has guarantees on the right to trade union activity,” Miedema said.

In his view, this would protect workers from going broke after bankruptcies in the future. The model is also affordable, according to calculations by the Clean Clothes Campaign. It would only cost brands 10 cents per T-shirt they produce to provide pay security for workers like Mom.

Michael O. Stutler