Labor-rights advocates are urging brands to protect garment workers’ health and livelihoods as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to upend supply chains, roil financial markets and strain medical infrastructures across the globe.
Brands, the Clean Clothes Campaign said Tuesday, must take “immediate proactive steps” to ensure that the already low-wage workers who make their goods do not shoulder the bulk of the fashion industry’s financial burden during this crisis, particularly as factories stalled or shutter production lines because of raw material shortages or reduced orders due to declining consumer demand.
Garment workers earn poverty wages that barely cover their basic needs, let alone tide them over for emergencies or periods of unemployment, the Clean Clothes Campaign noted. Whether temporary or permanent, the economic fallout from these factory closures will have “far-reaching consequences” for garment workers living in precarious circumstances with little to no freedom of association or social protections. Migrant workers, specifically, may face further isolation or xenophobia.
“Garment workers live hand to mouth. If workers lose their jobs, they will lose their monthly wages that put food on the table for them and their families,” Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, said in a statement. “If workers are laid off, brands should ensure immediate payments to factories so that workers receive their full legally owed severance.”
The situation is especially fraught in Cambodia and Myanmar, where tens of thousands of garments workers have lost jobs in the wake of supply-chain disruptions or production slowdowns. In Myanmar, workers are owed severance pay if the factory closure lasts beyond three months, but the pay itself amounts to just half a month’s salary per year employed after a six-month probation period.
Because many facilities in Myanmar opened within the past five years, and the turnover of workers is significant, many workers will be “left with nothing,” the Clean Clothes Campaign said.
The situation in Cambodia is equally perilous.
Under Cambodian law, employers must seek approval before suspending workers. They’re also required to pay them 40 percent of the $190 minimum wage, with the government reportedly covering another 20 percent for the next six months. But factories have cut off workers without authorization, the Clean Clothes Campaign said, leaving many in debt and unable to afford monthly loan repayments.
“Apparel brands have been profiting from the labor of Cambodian workers; these brands now need to step up in this time of crisis, and ensure protection for workers’ lives and livelihoods,” said Tola Moeun, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights. “Workers should be allowed to stay at home until the situation is manageable—and the brands need to ensure they are paid their full regular wage, attendance bonus and room/transport allowance during this period.”
Brands, the Clean Clothes Campaign stressed, must conduct due diligence to ensure that the workers who make their clothes maintain their contracts and continue to receive their wages during factory closures or sick leave.
Specifically, during a pandemic, they must ensure that their supplier factories adhere to government requirements or recommendations regarding the suspension of large gatherings and shutter factories whenever necessary to protect the health of workers and their communities. They should also ensure that underemployed workers who are sent home are compensated in full, and that those who contract the virus (or suspect they have) can take a leave of absence without negative repercussions or a loss in wages.
In addition, when factories reopen, deadlines should be reassessed to prevent laborers from working mandatory overtime to make up for delays.
“In a period of crisis, strength can be found in solidarity and we are proud to be part of a global community,” the Clean Clothes Campaign said. “We stand with workers whose rights are violated every day and who are facing even greater economic battles due to this pandemic. The need to fight for workers’ rights continues, and in the shadow of this crisis the urgent need for a living wage looms large.”