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Brands At Risk of ‘Losing’ Asian Labor Force to Covid-19

India isn’t the only nation battling a resurgent wave of Covid-19.

Other countries in South and Southeast Asia, which had previously kept the coronavirus at bay, are struggling to contain a sudden surge in cases from more contagious and rapidly replicating new variants amid widespread vaccine shortages. In apparel and footwear production hubs such as Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, garment workers are usually at the center of clusters.

Though it’s unlikely these countries will see an explosion in cases on the level of India, which has racked up more than 28 million infections and over 340,000 deaths to date, there will “undoubtedly be a spike in cases which will have [an] adverse impact on their garment industries,” Sofia Nazalya, Asia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk-monitoring firm, told Sourcing Journal.

Workers were already on the brink of hardship and destitution after brands canceled and suspended orders en-masse at the start of the outbreak. Now, with cases skyrocketing, they face greater precarity as they’re forced to choose between their lives and their livelihoods. The lingering financial fallout from the past year has also created an atmosphere of desperation, one that suppliers say is being made worse—and exploited—by unethical purchasing practices.

“Due to economic necessity, these countries are unlikely to return to lockdown measures that will see the complete cessation of garment production. Instead, stricter safety and distancing measures can be expected in factories,” Nazalya said. “Nevertheless, workers are likely to be at a higher risk of disruptions such as more unstable working hours and therefore lower pay.”

Garment workers are a particularly vulnerable population, labor advocates say, because they tend to suffer from malnutrition, have limited access to healthcare and are required to toil under crowded conditions where infection can flourish. Their workforces mostly comprise women, migrants and younger people who are underprioritized in vaccine drives.

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And because of their already low wages and lack of social safety nets, workers who might have been exposed to SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, have little choice but to go to work, even if they feel ill. Staying at home puts their paychecks and potentially their jobs in jeopardy, especially as manufacturers ramp up production to make up for last year’s lost orders and meet the growing demand from Western nations where the disease is easing.

“[The] pressure is on because main markets of the U.S., U.K. [and] European Union are now getting vaccinated and consumer sentiment is picking up as Covid cases go down,” Anushka Wijesinha, international consultant at the International Trade Centre, told Sourcing Journal. “So the demand will be there. Anecdotally, we know that several factories are struggling to meet customer orders on time.”

Factories aren’t always equipped to avoid or manage the spread of infection, either, said Vishmee Warnachapa, deputy coordinator for Sri Lanka at the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, which advocates for collective bargaining in the global garment industry.

In Sri Lanka, when a worker in a production line is infected, “just that person will be sent to quarantine,” she told Sourcing Journal. “The workers on either side of that person in the production line status [still] have to report to work; [they] will not be subjected to PCR or antigen tests to see if they have also contracted the virus unless they show any severe symptoms.”

Now in its third wave of the pandemic, the South Asian nation saw a spike in Covid-19 cases after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in April. Though the island nation, which faces the southern tip of India, will be under lockdown until at least June 14, apparel production is considered an essential service, which means most of its 850 factories are still running.

Factory owners, Warnachapa said, have failed to keep a lid on the infection, resulting in clusters of hundreds of infected workers developing in facilities owned by the three of the country’s biggest textile manufacturers: Brandix, MAS Holdings and the Hirdaramani Group. Since each factory can employ up to 3,000 people, “so many more workers are likely to be infected,” she added.

Almost all of the boarding houses where workers live have at least one person that has tested positive. Since between 15 and 20 workers share the same boarding space and have to share one washroom most of the time as well, there is an “extremely high chance” of contracting the virus, Warnachapa said. The quarantine centers where they are sometimes housed tend to be unhygienic and “not suitable for patients.”

Factories also “do not support the workers much,” Warnachapa said. “MAS and a few other factories had come and given workers some food and a ration pack, but the remaining don’t bother and have not even come to check on the workers. Workers also don’t know about the status of their salaries—whether they will not be paid for the days in quarantine or if they will be paid.”

The government has shut some of MAS’s factories down because they kept their production lines humming despite the “massive” numbers of infected workers numbering between 400 and 500 each, according to Warnachapa. Quarantined MAS workers are seeing lost wages as well, and many have missed out on bonuses because the company says it is facing financial straits, she said. (MAS Holdings did not respond to a request for comment.) Brandix, Warnachapa added, has informed workers that those who are quarantined will receive unpaid leave.

Brandix says it disputes many of these claims. A spokesperson told Sourcing Journal that pregnant women, employees with pre-existing chronic conditions, and those who choose not to attend work due to “other Covid-related concerns” are all advised to stay home, with full salaries paid for the duration.

Its 23 factories in Sri Lanka are operating at less than 70 percent capacity to “ensure social distancing” on the factory floor. Other measures that are “strictly followed” include random PCR tests conducted every week as a “proactive measure,” screenings before employees board staff buses and after they exit factories, frequent handwashing and hand sanitization, along with the wearing of face masks.

“Our current protocols and testing have allowed us to control the number of cases within our facilities; however, this is becoming challenging as the virus mutates, and the number of Covid-19 cases within communities rise,” the spokesperson said. “In order to secure the safety and wellbeing of our workforce as well as sustain the business, a strong vaccination drive is critical.”

In apparel production hubs such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, garment workers are usually at the center of coronavirus clusters.
Garment workers in Vietnam, which has been praised for keeping Covid-19 cases under 2,000 while growing the economy at 2.9 percent in 2020. AP Photo/Hau Dinh

A spokesperson for Hirdaramani Group admitted to several cases at its factories, one of which is completely under quarantine, but said that it is “diligently following all health and safety protocols advice by the government authorities and will always prioritize the health and safety of our associates.” Hirdaramani is also hopeful that the government will be able to secure and provide vaccines for all of Sri Lanka in the coming months, the spokesperson added.

The Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), the country’s leading industry group, says it’s working “very closely” with government authorities to “ensure the safety of employees and the community while keeping the industry operating.”

“The health authorities provide industries such as ours with a set of guidelines updated and reviewed on an ongoing basis, to ensure that plants operate within the latest health protocols,” MPT Cooray, secretary-general of the JAAF, told Sourcing Journal. “These include the screening of employees to identify those with symptoms of Covid-19, multiple daily temperature checks and strict random testing protocol of employees.”

Cooray says it’s important to note that the current outbreak is not a factory issue but one that is “almost country-wide.” Sri Lanka has averaged 3,000 new cases every day since late May.

“We seem to be at [a] point where Covid-19 is prevalent across multiple clusters across the country and the operation of all manufacturing sectors have to operate as far as it practically possible, within the concept of a bio bubble,” he said. “We believe that these controls together with a national rollout of vaccination of the entire working population of the country will be crucial to control the current situation. Unfortunately at the moment due to a global shortage of vaccines, there is a delay [in this].”

The isolated travel restrictions and lockdowns are only “temporary stopgap measures and we believe that the only way out of this crisis is to have a continued focus on protocols not just in apparel factories but across all parts of society, and a nationwide vaccine rollout at this critical time,” Cooray added. “JAAF will continue to work with the government authorities to ensure that the workforce is protected by a comprehensive vaccination program.”

Still, government efforts often provide limited relief, if they reach workers at all, said Annabel Meurs​, head of supply chain transformation at the Fair Wear Foundation, a multistakeholder organization based in the Netherlands. A case in point, she said, is Vietnam, a country that has been praised for keeping Covid-19 cases under 2,000 while growing the economy at 2.9 percent in 2020.

What is often missing from this “bright picture,” a recent report from the Fair Wear Foundation, noted, is the struggle of thousands of enterprises and millions of workers. The apparel and footwear industries have been among the most affected sectors in Vietnam, even though it’s still inching along despite an uptick in cases, which have run into the hundreds every day since mid-May.

“Suppliers may have shown resilience by implementing creative measures to keep their business, such as developing new products or changing their supply chain set up,” Meurs​ told Sourcing Journal. “However, the effect on workers income is still immense, dampening the already decreasing economic situation.”

Cutting on labor costs, she said, was “inevitable” for most suppliers, but support from the government has also been lackluster or only obtainable if certain barriers could be overcome, which some workers have found too difficult. “We have also seen workers struggling to find new employment and often ending up in the informal sector where it is much more challenging to monitor working conditions,” Meurs​ said.

Much of the suffering occurring in the garment industry is an exacerbation of “already-existing systems,” she added. “For example, workers were not informed about changes in policy or measures taken by the factory, which reiterates the structural lack of social dialogue in Vietnam. Workers’ voices were rarely heard. Or during lay-off procedures, discrimination against older workers, migrant workers or pregnant workers became [more] visible.” Research has shown that violence and harassment have increased, as has the number of workers embroiled in debt.

Multinational brands and retailers undoubtedly have a moral responsibility and their silence has been, in a word, deafening, said Cambodian politician and activist Sochua Mu. Garment workers in Cambodia, which recently ended a blanket Covid-19 lockdown, are returning to work in a climate of fear and uncertainty as infections mount. The country has so far recorded nearly 32,200 cases, most of them since early April, and more than 230 deaths.

Support from the government, she said, has been virtually nonexistent or mere lip service. (The government had promised $75 cash payments to families under quarantine, but officials rescinded the offer after 10 days.) Factories are rarely compliant with sanitation guidelines, and workers even have to pay for their own sanitizers and their own face masks, which they use for three or four days in a row to save money. Meanwhile, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia recently rejected calls from workers, who were unable to work during the most recent lockdown, to be paid in full for their time during quarantine, saying that the “principle of no work, no pay must prevail.”

“The brands need to pull themselves together,” Mu told Sourcing Journal. “There is room for tragedy in Cambodia—maybe not on the scale of India—but the social safety net just doesn’t exist in Cambodia and the health sector is really weak.”

Brands have “exploited workers long enough,” she added. “If the brands, in the long run, are not part of this solution, they will lose this labor force. The workers will be too weak. They need to show their moral responsibility.”

The American Apparel & Footwear Association, which represents 1,000 household-name brands, including Adidas, Gap and J.Crew, says it has worked with the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production to publish Covid-19 guidance, which it continually updates, for the industry’s factories since the start of the pandemic.

“While conditions are improving with the distribution of vaccines in some parts of the world, it is important to remember that this distribution has not been equitable—with many of our supply chain partners still waiting for their vaccinations and experiencing new waves of cases,” Steve Lamar, president and CEO of the AAFA, told Sourcing Journal. “With this in mind, AAFA is continuing to advocate for policies that protect workers throughout the supply chain. This includes updating our publicly available guidance to help factories protect their workers, and by advocating for the wider distribution of vaccines to countries that are experiencing major spikes in cases.”

The only way to address the economic fallout of the pandemic, he added, is to tackle the underlying public health crisis. “Until that time, we have been pushing governments to maintain policies that reflect the recommendations of public health officials to ensure that work can safely continue until a vaccine is widely available,” Lamar said.

Labor groups have been calling for brands to do more, including setting up a wage assurance fund, which is “basically a public statement” by brands to say they will take responsibility for bridging the “Covid wage gap”  created by pandemic cuts, Ineke Zelenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest consortium of worker-rights groups and labor unions, said at a webinar organized by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility on Thursday.

When orders weren‘t coming in and the Cambodian government allowed factories to pay workers 60 percent of their regular pay last year, labor groups had to tell brands that this wasn’t a reduction of wages that were already “too low to begin with,” Zeldenrust said.

“The responsible due diligence for brands and companies exists, irrespective of whether or not governments fulfill their duty,” she said. “[They] have living wage policies, [they] have compliance [with] international guidelines. That wage gap is [theirs] to take measures with. That doesn’t mean [one brand has] to singlehandedly pay [everything, but they] can work with other brands. That is [their] responsibility as supply chain companies.”