Global: Women garment workers supplying US brands continue to face the consequences of cancelled orders & mass layoffs during the pandemic
"She Made Jeans for Americans. When They Stopped Shopping, She Turned to Sex Work", 14 December 2021
For five years, [Anna] stitched Levi’s jeans at a garment factory in Lesotho...The salary wasn’t much; she occasionally had sex with a male colleague for an extra $20 a month to support her family. But as the garment industry...crumbled during the coronavirus pandemic, she found herself on the end of mass layoffs. In April of this year, management announced that the factory would be closing, due to reduced orders from U.S. brands and other pandemic-related issues. She was let go in August.
A week later, she turned to sex work full time...
Anna...is one of over 6,000 garment workers who recently lost a job with the Nien Hsing group. The Taiwanese company...owns five major factories, three of which have closed in the past 16 months. Nien Hsing has been a major supplier to Levi’s, Kontoor Brands (owners of Wrangler) and the Children’s Place, but the company has reduced production amid COVID-19 pandemic headwinds.
Retail markets may have begun to bounce back, but for already low-paid and vulnerable workers in factories in Lesotho and larger garment-producing countries such as India and Cambodia, those gains can take time to trickle down. Ongoing disruptions continue to cause havoc in a period when retailers remain uncertain about the future.
In India, there is still a “great deal” of uncertainty about orders in Chennai...says Sujata Mody, president of the Garment and Fashion Workers Union. She estimates that 10% of the multibillion-dollar industry’s approximately 200,000 workforce in Chennai are still unemployed. Many factories remain closed, she adds, while those still working face longer hours, higher expected targets and increased incidents of violence...
Female garment workers over 40 have been hit particularly hard, she adds. Viewed as less productive, they were targeted when factory owners downsized during the pandemic, says Mody, who has spoken to hundreds of women who reached out to the union. Some have been able to find temporary low-paid cleaning work, while others are struggling to find anything at all, she says.
For Sam Phary, a 40-year-old garment worker in Cambodia, her soaring debts are keeping her awake at night. A single parent to three children, she owes $10,000 to a microfinance lender. As COVID-19 infections rose in mid-April of this year, Cambodia once again shut clothing factories, leaving thousands of workers without income....She is back sewing at a factory in Phnom Penh...but earns less due to reduced orders, she says, and is concerned she’ll lose her home if she continues to default on her repayments.
In May, TIME and the Fuller Project reported on vast sexual abuse and harassment taking place at Hippo Knitting, another Taiwanese company in Lesotho’s capital, Maseru. The factory predominantly...Fabletics... After a three-month pause, the brand resumed production in August while taking steps to improve workers’ rights.
But roughly 600 workers are reportedly expected to be permanently laid off early next year, according to Sam Mokhele, general secretary of the National Clothing, Textile & Allied Workers’ Union in Lesotho. When asked about a reduction in orders at Hippo Knitting, Fabletics said in an emailed statement that orders over the last few months have been greater than or equal to those placed last year. The factory owners declined to comment on looming job cuts...
Less than four miles away, thousands of women from the Nien Hsing factories already face this stark reality. In a matter of months, the company’s estimated 10,000-strong workforce dropped by more than half and lost over $50 million this past year, according to Louis Rouillon, Nien Hsing’s former social responsibility director.
He says that in addition to Wrangler and the Children’s Place cutting orders by roughly 30% this year, rising transport costs, recent wage protests in Lesotho and fluctuating Covid infection rates have all played roles in the company’s decline.
...a spokesperson for the Children’s Place said Nien Hsing informed the retailer earlier this year that it was “scaling back operations,” and that the terms of their relationship “did not fit” the Taiwanese company’s new business model.
Levi’s said the brand had maintained—and at times increased—its order volume with the Nien Hsing group over the past year. Wrangler did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Each month at the factory, Anna was paid less than the price of two pairs of Levi’s—about $133—but it wasn’t enough to cover her family’s basic costs, she says. No one at the factory knew about her arrangement with her male colleague, she adds. When he was let go, her monthly income dropped. Now, sex work nets Anna roughly $6 to $19 per night...
... Ricky Chang, Nien Hsing’s administration manager, says he remains hopeful some factories will reopen next year. “But it’s hard to tell,” he said. “Look at what just happened in South Africa [with the Omicron variant]—people are in panic again … If the environment does not allow you to stay, you have to seek something else. Right now, I am concerned about the entire future of Lesotho’s garment industry.”