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Asia’s Garment Workers Face COVID-19 Triple Threat

Even as more than a dozen major apparel brands and retailers have committed to ponying up in full for previously canceled orders, according to labor campaigners, the Asian garment industry continues to gasp for survival amid the deepening coronavirus pandemic, as workers either fall prey to the contagion, risk long-term unemployment because of evaporated work or face clampdowns on their freedom of association.

At a single factory in the Svay Rieng province of Cambodia alone, 2,000 workers are staring down a two-month furlough due to the dearth of orders from Western companies facing fiscal chaos of their own.

On Wednesday, Pum Sokunthy, deputy president of the local chapter of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, told VOD, a publication of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, that You Li International (Cambodia) Garment in Bavet City will be suspending nearly half of its 5,000-member workforce from May 1 to June 30.

Factory representatives told affected workers that they would receive $70 per month—or roughly 37 percent of the minimum wage of $190 per month—with $30 proffered by the factory owner as mandated by the government.

“We will see a lot of impacts because [workers’] incomes during this suspension period are too little,” he told VOD. “It’s not enough to support a family. So, [workers] are complaining so much about this and some have [already] borrowed money from banks.”

You Li’s administrative chief Sek Buntheoun told VOD that suspensions aside, the factory will not be renewing 200 workers’ contracts, which expired last week.

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“In short, there have been no orders since the outbreak of Covid-19,” Buntheoun said. “The orders have reduced a lot. My factory might suspend more workers because currently, there is no work to do.”

More than 150,000 garment workers are caught in a similar state of limbo due to production cuts at 180 factories in Cambodia, according to the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.

Employing some 800,000 workers, the Southeast Asian nation’s garment industry is the country’s largest employer and contributes 40 percent of its gross domestic product. The nation exported $9.3 billion in clothing and footwear last year, according to the Ministry of Industry and Handicraft, a year-on-year increase of 11 percent.

As Bangladesh’s garment production lines sputter back to life, albeit on a “limited scale,” labor advocates warn that the reopenings could bolster the spread of COVID-19 even as the country tries to repair the pandemic’s economic harm.

Bangladesh’s $30 billion clothing sector employs 4 million people and accounts for 80 percent of the country’s export earnings, but the pandemic has resulted in more than $3 billion in canceled orders, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Already, some 96 garment workers and a staffer have tested positive for the virus since April 9, according to a new report from Bangladesh Garment Sramik Sanghati (BGSS), a workers’ welfare organization. Of those workers, 52 percent were infected since the reopening of the factories on April 26; the remaining 48 percent caught the contagion between April 9 and 26.

Most of the infected workers—79 percent—hailed from factories in the Dhaka, Gazipur and Narayanganj districts, it noted.

The rapid increase in the number of cases suggests factories were pushed online without “due preparation,” BGSS president Taslima Akhter said at a virtual press conference Thursday. “As a result, there is a huge risk for the workers,” she added.

To date, Bangladesh, a nation of 161.4 million, has fielded 13,134 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 206 deaths.

In Indonesia, a trade group has sounded the alarm, declaring that 70 percent of the country’s textile and textile product (TPT) companies could face permanent closure because of nosediving domestic and export demand.

In the early days of the outbreak, Indonesian textile companies were seeing a bump to their bottom lines by filling orders caused by delayed Chinese shipments, as the country relies largely on domestic supply chains. That advantage has all but dissipated.

Roughly 80 percent of TPT companies have paused operations because of throttled cash flows, according to the Indonesian Filament and Fiber Producers Association (APSyFI).

“We have cash flow difficulties because even though we have no income, we still have to pay penalties to the state electricity and gas companies while also paying our workers’ social security fees,” APSyFI secretary-general Redma Gita Warawasta wrote in a press release last week.

As many as 1.8 million TPT workers have already been furloughed or laid off, and a spate of business closures could cause unemployment to skyrocket still. Last year, Indonesia’s TPT sector employed 2 million people and exported nearly $13 billion worth of textile products in 2019, primarily to the American and Middle Eastern markets.

APSyFI has appealed for penalty fee waivers from state electricity firm PLN and state gas company PT PGN for textile companies with electricity and gas consumption below a certain threshold.

“Our request for penalty fee waivers is reasonable because the government has declared [COVID-19 pandemic] a national disaster. But in reality, neither PLN nor PGN regard the pandemic as a national disaster and they are still imposing penalty fees,” Redma said.

Meanwhile, workers in Myanmar claim that factory owners are exploiting the pandemic to break up union activity. Of the 571 who had been dismissed by Myan Mode, a Yangon facility that supplies clothing to brands like Mango and Zara, 520 had belonged to the factory’s union, a group of sewing operators told the New York Times Friday.

“The bosses used COVID as an opportunity to get rid of us because they hated our union,” Maung Moe, the factory’s union president, told the New York Times, noting that he and other union members had been in talks with management before the firings to demand personal protective equipment and better social distancing.

“They thought we caused them constant headaches by fighting for our rights and those of our fellow workers,” he said.

Myanmar’s garment industry, whose 600 factories employ 450,000 workers, made $4.6 billion last year, or roughly 10 percent of the country’s total export revenues.