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Opinion

Garment workers across Asia face widespread labour rights violations linked to COVID-19

BHRRC

As stores closed around the world in response to COVID-19 lockdowns, fashion brands and retailers minimised their losses and shifted the financial burden of the disruption to the bottom of their supply chain by cancelling orders, delaying payments and demanding huge ‘discounts’ from suppliers.

In response, at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre we launched our COVID-19 apparel tracker, which monitors brands’ responses to the pandemic and the impact on workers in their supply chains. Since we released the tracker in May, international pressure has led some brands, like Gap and Primark, to change their position and commit to paying for completed and in-production orders in full. Others, such as Walmart and Arcadia Group (Topshop), refuse to budge and pay what they owe.

The impact of these decisions on the estimated 40-60 million workers employed by the global garment industry has been catastrophic. Unable to bear the financial burden, many suppliers have been unable to pay garment workers the wages they are owed and have laid off or suspended workers en masse. Every day we track several reports of rights violations faced by garment workers as a result. Clean Clothes Campaign estimates that garment workers have been deprived of US$5.8 billion in wages from March to May alone, driving workers who already earn poverty wages into a humanitarian crisis.

To provide information and labour and human rights trends for major apparel exporting countries in Asia as a result of the pandemic, we added ten country specific pages to our COVID-19 apparel tracker: Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

BHRRC

Across these ten countries, up to 16 million garment workers have suffered job losses since the onset of the pandemic. This has had a devastating impact on garment workers across the region. Yet within this context, our research shows that workers who belong to a trade union and have organised for safer working conditions amid fears of infection have been disproportionately targeted for dismissal.

In seven of the ten countries we have seen reports of union busting and of intimidation and harassment of union leaders, suggesting that apparel factories are using the pandemic as a cover to crackdown on trade unions. The largely inadequate response by brands to reports of union busting in their supply chains has led to mounting fears among unions that the industry will use the pandemic as an opportunity to reduce or even eliminate unionised workforces altogether in pursuit of a more docile workforce.

In all ten countries, reports indicate garment workers have not been paid wages because of brands not honouring their contracts and paying what they owe. In four countries – Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and the Philippines – garment worker protests over unpaid wages have been met with violent crackdowns.

As lockdowns have lifted and garment production has resumed, in seven of the ten countries there have been reports of a lack of COVID-19 safety precautions in factories and of garment workers being infected with the virus at work.

Garment workers are again being pushed to do more overtime – often unpaid – so suppliers can meet the short turnaround times demanded by brands. Excessive overtime is an indicator of forced labour and research firm Verisk Maplecroft has recently warned that the risk of modern slavery in Asian garment manufacturing hubs has surged and is set to worsen with the economic impact of COVID-19. Our own research found that in two of the ten countries - India and Vietnam - reports have surfaced of garment factories using forced labour during the pandemic.

BHRRC

Garment workers were systematically exploited on poverty wages before the pandemic, struggling to realise fundamental labour rights in factories, and facing retaliation for organising for better conditions. With fashion brands driven by the pursuit for high profits, low cost of production is paramount and cheap labour is often combined with conditions where labour rights are heavily suppressed.

Seven of the countries on our tracker are rated as ‘5’ by ITUC’s Global Rights Index – which rates countries on a scale from 1 (best) to 5+ (worst) on the degree of respect for workers' rights – indicating workers have no guarantee of internationally recognised labour rights. The other three countries are rated as ‘4’, indicating workers experience systematic violations of labour rights.

Fashion brands must not abandon the workers that produce their clothes during the COVID-19 crisis. To ensure garment workers are paid during the pandemic, brands must honour existing contractual obligations, pay what they owe and continue to place consistent orders with suppliers. Labour groups and unions are also calling on brands to publicly commit to a wage assurance and make a one-time Supply Chain Relief Contribution equal to 60 days of wages lost for all garment workers in their supply chains, as a requirement of responsible business practice.

Beyond the crisis, brands must urgently ensure the workers that produce their clothes earn enough to live on and put an end to the poverty wages that characterise the industry. A recent survey by Clean Clothes Campaign found that 93% of brands failed to provide evidence that they are paying a living wage to any of their suppliers. Brands should do this by overhauling their buying practices and how they treat suppliers, paying fair prices that ring-fence non-negotiable labour costs.

Most brands have policy commitments to protect the rights of workers in their supply chains. However, the lack of provisions on enforceability and the non-binding nature of these commitments means that their existence often means very little for workers.

When reports of human and labour rights violations arise in their supply chains, brands must ensure workers and unions are directly and meaningfully engaged to ensure swift and just resolutions. However, as we wait for brands to voluntarily take responsibility for the workers who produce their clothes, garment workers continue to suffer. Ultimately to prevent the exploitation of workers and repression of their fundamental rights, legally binding mechanisms are required with strict sanctions for non-compliance.