More hours, less money: Garment workers hit by Covid-19 rights roll-back

Labour rights campaigners have said millions of garment workers around the world are owed wages and severance pay since the pandemic started.
Labour rights campaigners have said millions of garment workers around the world are owed wages and severance pay since the pandemic started.PHOTO: AFP

CHENNAI, INDIA (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - Sacked from his job at a Pakistani garment factory in the early days of the pandemic, Mr Abdul Wasid was rehired three months later - with a lower pay and longer hours. He now has to borrow money to make ends meet.

His experience reflects a roll-back on labour rights in the global garment industry due to Covid-19 as fashion brands pile pressure on their suppliers and, in turn, on factory workers, according to two new reports by labour advocacy groups.

"I was desperate because I hadn't earned anything for months after being fired and agreed to everything they said. Now I'm depending on small loans to survive," Mr Wasid, 35, said by video call from his Karachi home after finishing a 10-hour shift.

Under his new temporary contract, he could be fired again if he complains about one month's pay he said he is still owed from last year.

Labour rights campaigners have said millions of garment workers around the world are owed wages and severance pay since the health crisis began.

"Wage theft is intrinsic to the business model of global fashion brands and it has been exacerbated by the pandemic,"said Ms Anannya Bhattacharjee, international coordinator with Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), which represents garment workers.

In a report titled Money Heist, which interviewed workers from 189 factories in six countries, the non-profit accuses profitable global brands of "transferring the risks of business" to manufacturers.

'Significant damage'

The livelihoods of an estimated 60 million garment workers around the world were put at risk as brands failed to set up systems to support people working down their supply chains, fashion industry experts and campaigners said last year.

At the height of the crisis, suppliers were left short of cash to pay workers as brands refused to pay for shipments that had already been delivered or cancelled orders for which factories had already purchased supplies, the AFWA report said.

In many instances, labour contractors simply switched off their phones in order to avoid workers asking for their dues, researchers said, citing interviews with factory staff.

Besides being owed wages in some cases, workers have lost overtime pay, food discounts, access to creches, with pregnant women or those with young children being impacted disproportionately, the report added.

The International Apparel Federation, which represents more than 100,000 associations and manufacturing companies worldwide, was not immediately available for comment, but has previously pointed a finger at brands over their conduct.

While some brands have made "significant efforts" to mitigate harm to workers, others have not taken a "responsible approach", said Mr Peter McAllister of the Ethical Trade Initiative - a leading alliance including retailers, trade unions and NGOs.

"In far too many cases, significant damage was and in some cases continues to be done," Mr McAllister, the alliance's executive director, said by e-mail.

"We have offered clear advice on our expectations of responsible behaviour and taken specific actions to improve conditions for workers affected by Covid-19 with members, however, more remains to be done," he added.

'Deep in debt'

New research by Britain's University of Sheffield and the US-based Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), a labour advocacy group, found more than one-third of workers who changed jobs during the pandemic reported a worsening in working conditions.

More than two-thirds (68 per cent) of workers who changed jobs had no written or oral contract in their new positions, according to a study based on interviews with some 1,000 workers in Ethiopia, Honduras, India and Myanmar - all major global suppliers.

Among those who did get a new contract, 19 per cent said the terms were worse than their previous one.

"Growing indebtedness among garment workers is a result of chronically low wages in brands' supply chains, compounded by brands' pandemic response," said Ms Genevieve LeBaron, co-author of the report and professor at the University of Sheffield.

"This is an alarming trend given the well-documented links between debt and vulnerability to forced labour."

The Money Heist report found garment workers' debts had surged since the pandemic started, while the Sheffield study said more than 60 per cent had borrowed money during the pandemic as income fell and savings dried up.

"Workers were already not being paid fair wages and had little savings at the beginning of the pandemic," said Mr Zameer Awan, field worker with The Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research, a charity.

"Now most are deep in debt and those who have found jobs again find themselves in more abusive conditions but without a voice anymore."

While labour rights campaigners are demanding a severance guarantee fund for workers that is financed by brands, many workers are pessimistic about improvements anytime soon.

"What I earn isn't enough and that's the reality," Mr Wasid told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "I don't see anything changing in the future... and there's nothing I can do about it."