Garment workers around the world are not being paid during the pandemic

Garment workers around the world are not being paid during the pandemic

Millions of people working in the supply chain for some of the high street’s favourite clothing brands haven’t been paid during the pandemic. Others have lost their jobs without financial compensation. 

It is estimated that 60 million garment workers are employed by the clothing industry, of whom 80 per cent are women who are paid less than their male colleagues. The economic insecurity caused by Covid-19 has led clothing companies to cut or cancel orders with suppliers, leaving workers who are already on extremely low wages with even less money to survive. 

A report by the Clean Clothes Campaign has found that H&M, Primark and Nike are among these brands – they are also three of the companies that are most frequently reported by workers as having violated worker rights during the pandemic. 

When the virus first hit China in January this year, the country suspended all transportation of raw materials to nations where clothes are produced, forcing many factories to close temporarily. When the pandemic spread to the US and Europe people stopped shopping, and the drop in demand led to brands cancelling orders, and in some cases refusing to pay for completed shipments. 

Many workers were sent home without notice or pay. In some factories they were dismissed en masse. In Bangladesh 72% of furloughed and 80% of dismissed workers were sent home unpaid in March

In Sri Lanka, the government responded to the threat of Covid-19 by declaring a country-wide curfew, which required the closure of all factories and offices in the country  except those providing essential services. The Sri Lankan garment industry employs 275,000 workers, the majority of whom are migrant women from rural areas. Although the government committed to a monthly relief payment of 5,000 LKR (the equivalent of $26), many workers didn’t receive this as they were prevented by their employers from returning to their home communities before the curfew went into effect. 

Corporations at the top of the supply chain have the power to set their own terms and prices in the factories they produce in, as in many regions they are the principal employers. Unfortunately governments have failed to step in, allowing factories to get away with reducing wages. Considering that in many cases this was already below the living wage, it is forcing large numbers of people into desperate situations. 

Protests against wage cuts and dismissals at factories have been happening continuously since March. In Cambodia, unions have started a national campaign to recoup the withheld wages and bonuses from the brands sourcing from the country.

The Clean Clothes Campaign estimates that for the first three months of the pandemic garment workers in global supply chains are owed between $3.2 to $5.8 billion in unpaid wages, legally owed bonuses, and compensation. 

The group has launched a campaign called ‘Pay Your Workers’ that is primarily focused on getting H&M, Primark, and Nike to pay their employees the salaries they’re owed, but is urging all clothing companies who outsource production to take responsibility for paying their workers’ wages. 

“This campaign targets some of the wealthiest apparel supply chains in the world” explains Ineke Zeldenrust from Clean Clothes Campaign. “These brands have made profits for decades on the basis of poverty wages and outsourced responsibility without contributing to any form of social protection in garment-producing countries. Our campaign aims to reclaim funds for the workers, by convincing brands to take responsibility for the people who enabled great profits through their underpaid labour.” 

In April over 120 brands, manufacturers and worker organisations endorsed a plan to engage with financial institutions, governments, and other donors to support garment manufacturers during the pandemic.  But the plan doesn’t include an enforcement mechanism for companies if workers in their supply chain don’t receive income support. Additionally not all companies have signed it, so brands and retailers need to monitor which workers are left unpaid in their own supply chains, and find ways to make sure they receive what they’re owed.

The ‘Wage Assurance’ has been launched by labour rights organisations and unions in response, calling on companies to publicly assure that all workers in their supply chain who were employed at the onset of the Covid-19 crisis will receive their wages, including back pay and severance pay. 

Featured image: Travel Aficionado / CC BY-NC 2.0

LEARN MORE: Are the brands you wear paying a living wage?

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