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Garment Workers Are Going Hungry: ‘Egg Is a Luxurious Food for Us Now’

As jobs and wages continue to spiral downward in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, garment workers across the supply chains of some of the world’s biggest fashion brands are reporting growing hunger and food insecurity, according to a new report published Friday.

In interviews conducted by the Worker Rights Consortium with 400 garment workers from 158 factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Lesotho and Myanmar, 20 percent of respondents described having experienced hunger on a daily basis since the beginning of the pandemic. Another 34 percent said they grappled with the same at least once a week.

All workers surveyed were employed in garment factories at the start of the crisis, but 38 percent have since stopped working because of temporary furloughs (11 percent) or permanent dismissal (27 percent). Another 2 percent of workers had willingly left their jobs. The remainder of the sample—60 percent—retained their employment status, but experienced an average 21 percent drop in income from $187 to $147 per month between March and August.

Some 75 percent of workers reported that they had borrowed money or incurred debt in order to buy food since the pandemic began. Of these, 43 percent were working at the same factory that employed them before the pandemic, meaning that even those who kept their jobs were accumulating debt to cope with lowered incomes, the report noted. One Indonesian worker who said she sewed clothes for Nike described curtailing her food intake because she was drowning in debt and wary of taking on more.

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“The high levels of hunger reported by workers in our survey are alarming, especially since so many of these workers are still in employment,” Genevieve LeBaron, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield and a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “Hunger and food insecurity appears already to be widespread and is growing across the supply chain.”

Overall, 77 percent of garment workers said that they or a member of their household has gone hungry since early March. The vast majority—88 percent—reported that their diminished incomes have forced a reduction in the amount of food they’ve consumed. When it came to respondents with dependent minors, 80 percent admitted to skipping meals or reducing the amount of food they ate in order to feed their children.

“Before the pandemic, I bought fruit for my child regularly. But after losing my job, I cannot buy even fish or meat,” said a Bangladeshi worker who formerly made clothing for Mango and Primark. “Egg is a luxurious food for us now.”

Affording fruit is out of reach for some Bangladeshi garment workers who have seen their wages shrink in the wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Affording fruit is out of reach for some Bangladeshi garment workers who have seen their wages shrink in the wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Salahuddin Ahmed/Sipa USA via AP Images

Of the workers interviewed, 80 percent said they anticipate further reducing the amount of food they eat or purchase for their family if their financial situations don’t improve.

“When we [buy] food for one week, it needs to last for two weeks,” a Burmese worker, who made clothing for Kiabi and Next, told researchers.

A Bangladeshi garment worker, who said she was fired from her job at a factory that produces for Kmart, Target and Walmart, said that she and her family have skipped breakfast every day for the past two months.

The brands and retailers most frequently cited by surveyed workers were Adidas, The Children’s Place, Express, Gap, Gildan, H&M, JCPenney, Nike, PVH Corp and Walmart.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, Nike has been working with our suppliers to support their efforts in response to the dynamic and unprecedented nature of the Covid-19 situation,” a spokeswoman for the athletic wear giant told Sourcing Journal.  “As they continue to navigate these circumstances, we expect our suppliers to consider their employees’ health and livelihoods and continue to comply with legal requirements and the Nike code of conduct on the provision of wages, benefits and severance.”

An Adidas spokesman said the report “does not contain any concrete allegations” against suppliers in its supply chain. “Since the start of the pandemic, Adidas has been committed to ensuring fair labor practices, fair wages and safe working conditions throughout our global supply chain,” he said. “We employ a team of 50 specialists mainly in the supplier countries, who work daily toward more sustainable business practices in our supply chain.”

Gap, a spokesman said, “deeply values the wellbeing of the people who work throughout our supply chain and the communities we touch. We are actively engaged in assessing how best to offer our support during these challenging times, and we are committed to doing more.“ The retailer noted its support of a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the American apparel and footwear industry to bring relief to workers in the apparel supply chain, adding that it is “actively exploring“ different partnerships with multilateral agencies and nonprofit partners that are “focused on providing humanitarian relief in key sourcing markets.“

JCPenney declined to give a statement; other brands did not respond to requests for comment.

Trade data suggests that U.S. and European brands canceled $16 billion in orders from April to June. While some companies have subsequently agreed to fulfill prior agreements in full, many others have not, labor-rights groups say, citing force majeure loopholes in their contracts. Experts also say that continual demands of steep discounts, even as orders begin to pick up again, are greatly exacerbating a state of emergency that has already resulted in widespread factory closures and the loss of millions of jobs. A number of brands have remained profitable, with some reporting record sales.

In addition, while some brands have referred to their participation in the International Labour Organization’s non-binding Call to Action as proof of their commitment to help workers during the pandemic, the initiative has mustered only “modest sums” of public money that represent a “small fraction” of what is necessary to sustain garment workers’ livelihoods, the report said. Little of that cash, too, has trickled down to the workers. And despite buy-ins with different initiatives, including USAID’s, brands have remained vague about the amount of financial support they plan to supply, it added.

“Several apparel companies cited by workers responding to the survey are owned by billionaires: including Bestseller, C&A and Zara,” said Penelope Kyritsis, director of strategic research at the Worker Rights Consortium and a co-author of the study. “Mass-market retailers, like Amazon and Target, are thriving during the pandemic. These companies, and the industry as a whole, are more than financially capable of ensuring that the workers who sew their clothes are able to feed their families.”