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Brands, Governments Must ‘Step Up’ for India’s Garment Workers

Labor advocates are appealing to brands and governments to “step up” as India continues to be overwhelmed by a wave of coronavirus infections and deaths that has driven its health system past the point of collapse. With the B.1.617 variant, which was first detected in the country, now declared a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, the risk of transmission to neighboring nations goes more dire by the day.

“Throughout India, families are struggling to find the care necessary to save their sick relatives and people are dying in their homes, in the hospitals and in the streets due to lack of medical attention,” the Clean Clothes Campaign, the apparel industry’s largest consortium of labor unions and non-governmental organizations, said this week. “The failure of the Union government to prepare for this eventuality has left every level of Indian society in pandemic-related freefall and which is now resulting in the surge spreading to other South Asian nations.”

For garment workers, who were already facing massive social, economic and medical disparities, the sense of desperation has grown more acute. Most were already on the brink of destitution after factories were forced to shutter during last year’s lockdown. Though many production lines are operating at half to full capacity, depending on the state, garment workers have to confront an “untenable decision” between showing up for work and potentially contracting the disease or staying home and starving, the Clean Clothes Campaign said.

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India’s clothing industry, which employs at least 12 million people, exported $12.3 billion in garments in 2020, a drop of more than 20 percent from $15.5 billion the previous year, according to the Mumbai-based Cotton Textiles Export Promotion Council.

“Unfortunately, due to decades of lack of investments from international brands and local factory owners, Indian garment factories are riddled with occupational safety and health risks, and, additionally, often do not provide sufficient hygienic facilities to prevent infection,” the organization said. “If workers are required to come to the factory during the pandemic, many will fall ill and will die. Staying at home, on the other hand, means inevitable hunger, with migrant workers among those hit hardest.”

In Tiruppur, a city in the textile-producing hub of Tamil Nadu, where some 2,000 mills and 280,000 workers create yarns and fabrics earmarked for the U.S. and European markets, nearly one-third of workers hail from other states, said Aloysius Arockiam, director of the labor nonprofit SAVE. Such workers, he said, are excluded from the vaccination drive and are less likely to receive quality medical treatment when infected.

Migrant workers also have fewer savings because they sent most of their paychecks home, Arockiam told Sourcing Journal. And, in the midst of a partial lockdown, any requests for wage advances are being denied because employers fear they’ll flee to their hometowns without paying back the amount. “The suppliers have failed to protect their own workers,” he said.

The world’s brands and retailers, with their extensive resources and significant influence, have a responsibility to safeguard the workers whose labor their businesses rely on, the Clean Clothes Campaign said. They must honor signed contracts and payment terms, allow greater latitude on production timelines and ensure that workers are able to perform their duties in workplaces that respect international occupational health and safety standards.

Equally important, companies must protect workers’ right to organize, engage in dialogue with unions and worker organizations to address outstanding issues and ensure that all employees are paid their legally mandated wages and benefits, including severance and sick pay, even during quarantine, isolation or furlough.

By committing to pay into a negotiated severance guarantee fund, brands and retailers can also cover wage arrears and severance while supporting stronger social protections for workers, the organization said.

Lawmakers, including the governments of India, other South Asian nations and countries where brands and retailers are headquartered, also have a vital role to play. For one thing, they can strengthen labor laws and human-rights due-diligence legislation, the Clean Clothes Campaign said. For another, they can ensure that the financial stimulus packages they provided are connected to cost-sharing, protection of labor rights and human-rights due diligence. Ensuring garment workers have equitable access to the Covid-19 vaccine for free is important, as well. “The situation facing garment workers is indefensible,” the group added.

Researchers are seeing similar patterns with garment-worker vulnerability in neighboring Bangladesh, which is still grappling with the fallout of last year’s rash of canceled orders, which in turn drove up unemployment rates.

Many of the country’s 4 million garment workers saw their meager savings evaporate because of pay cuts or lost jobs, according to a study published last month by the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in collaboration with the Institute for Human Rights and Business and with the support of the United Nations Development Programme and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The report, said Sanchita Banerjee Saxena, one of its authors, offers similar recommendations.

Because most of the garment industry’s woes are the result of the “inherent power imbalance” between large companies from the industrialized world and low-wage workers with lackluster representation, the Bangladesh government needs to strengthen social protection mechanisms, including health benefits and a social security net, the report noted. Authorities could also provide resources through “well-designed” furlough regulations so workers’ wages are protected in the event of an emergency.

“Our report finds that all parties–Bangladesh government, international agencies, brands, suppliers, and unions–have a role to play to mitigate human rights harms to the workers,” Saxena told Sourcing Journal. “The recommendations in our report offer only a top-line presentation of the actions that all relevant actors need to take to address the challenges facing the garment industry in Bangladesh, which the Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharper focus.”