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Fashion ‘Power Brokers’ Must Safeguard ‘Human-Centered’ Future for Asian Garment Sector

Covid-19 may have struck Asia and the Pacific first but it’s the pandemic’s “ripple effect” on the rest of the world that will fundamentally reshape garment-worker employment, wages, gender equality, safety and health and freedom of association in the region, according to a research brief published Wednesday by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Even now, the collapse of the global garment trade at the outset of the contagion continues to send shockwaves throughout garment-producing countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar, where exports to major buying countries have plummeted by as much as 70 percent due to widespread cancellations of orders, the ILO said. Because of workplace closures abroad, most notably in China and India, garment manufacturers experienced disruptions of up to 60 percent of their imported raw materials and inputs, resulting in production bottlenecks that choked up any remaining workflows.

With nations across the globe facing a resurgent wave of coronavirus cases, raising the grim specter of renewed lockdowns, Asia’s thousands of factories, which are responsible for 60 percent of the world’s total apparel exports, along with their millions of workers, will likely have to tough it out some more. As of September, roughly one in two garment workers in the region lived in countries with required closures of all but essential workplaces, including garment factories, the ILO said. What’s more, nearly half of all garment jobs in Asia were dependent on domestic or foreign consumer demand from countries with highly stringent lockdown measures and where steep drops in retail sales were also observed.

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As a result of factory closures or suspensions, worker layoffs, furloughs and dismissals have been endemic, and even facilities that have since reopened are far from full capacity. The ILO estimates that the average worker lost out on at least two to four weeks of work, and only three in five have returned to production lines. For workers still employed in the second quarter of 2020, declines in earnings and delays in wages payments “were also common.” Since women make up most of Asia’s garment workers—the garment sector hires 5.2 percent of all working women in the region, or 27.9 percent of all women working in manufacturing—the Covid-19 crisis has thrown gender inequalities into greater relief.

“Many workers, especially women, have a double burden of combining both their paid and unpaid work responsibilities, shouldering a disproportionate share of household chores and care of children and other family members,” the ILO wrote. “While some factories reopened, day-care facilities remained closed, leaving working parents—and working women, in particular—in difficulty.”

In a Care International survey of 307 women garment workers in Cambodia, conducted in May and June, 36 percent of respondents said they bore a heavier workload than men during the pandemic, and 13 percent flagged an increase in unpaid care work among the top three problems from the crisis. While the provision of nursery or childcare facilities in factories is a requirement under national law in several Asian countries, it’s far from universal.

Issues that loomed large before the pandemic, such as the dearth of collective bargaining and freedom of association, have only grown worse during the pandemic, since lockdown provisions have also limited union activity and organizing. In Bangladesh, for example, labor law requires two meetings of members before a union can be registered. “Given the lockdown, it has not been possible to organize these legally mandated meetings, and this has led to a slowdown of union registrations,” the ILO said.

But advocacy for their rights has never been more important. While the results of an ILO Better Factories Cambodia phone survey suggest that temperature checks are required upon entry into the majority of factories, and face masks are provided in most cases, other occupational health and safety directives are more inconsistent. Just 20 percent of workers interviewed, for instance, reported that their employers implemented social-distancing measures by reducing gatherings in canteens or break areas. Only 14 percent of workers said their employers disinfected work surfaces, and 12 percent said their employers had rearranged production to allow for social distancing.

Over in Bangladesh, nearly half of workers surveyed by Brac University reported that their factories had not given them any personal protective equipment. Roughly one in four of the surveyed workers said they weren’t informed about paid sick leave or special leave provisions if they experienced Covid-19 symptoms.

The ILO said governments in the region responded to the crisis by supporting workers and enterprises “along various dimensions,” including temporary wage supports for those impacted, yet it remains to be seen if “this support is sufficient.” It’s reiterating its global Call to Action—as negotiated in April between the International Organisation of Employers, the International Trade Union Confederation and IndustriAll Global Union, and backed by 125 signatories—to urge “committed follow-up and action” among garment supply-chain stakeholders to mobilize support for factories and workers during the crisis, including the rapid disbursement of funds through emergency relief instruments, credit and short-term loans.

The ILO has also proposed a policy framework based on four pillars: stimulating the economy and employment, supporting enterprises and jobs, protecting workers in the workplace and relying on social dialogue for solutions.

“As the pandemic continues to take its toll on the health as well as the economic and social wellbeing of the world population, the continued mobilization of resources and action along those four pillars remains key to safeguard jobs and livelihoods, including those in the garment sector,” it said. “It is ultimately upon national governments, workers and employers to work together with other industry power brokers to find collective solutions for a human-centered future of the industry—a future that can deliver on its promise to be a transformative force for social and economic good across Asia and the Pacific.”