Live-blog: How the Coronavirus affects garment workers in supply chains

This blog aims to collect daily information about how the new Coronavirus COVID-19 is influencing garment workers' rights in supply chains around the world. It will be updated as new information comes in from media and the Clean Clothes Campaign global network. Information is posted as it comes in from the network and cannot always be double-checked.

18 October

Bangladesh: It has been reported that workers from Sinha garments in Bangladesh have been protesting for their unpaid wages since the beginning of the pandemic, as brands cancelled orders, reduced orders or demanded clothes at a cheaper cost. Following the most recent protests demanding four months worth of wages, last week the workers decided to begin a hunger strike.

In response it was agreed that workers would be paid by 17th. Whether this happens or not will remain to be seen.

Myanmar: Media report that the Embassy of Denmark in Myanmar says it is trying to save jobs and fight the pandemic in Myanmar. 

Through the Danish ‘Responsible Business Fund’, Denmark has throughout the Covid-19 crisis helped local garment factories to reorganize their facilities for the production of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) – medical grade masks and isolation gowns. The Embassy of Denmark in Myanmar says it has  placed orders worth USD 1.500.000 for the production of medical-grade masks and isolation gowns at 11 local garment factories in Myanmar.

France: Media report that employees at H&M Logistics GBC France have been on strike and blocked trucks from entering the group's warehouse in Le Bourget (Seine-Saint-Denis). They are protesting the announced closure of the site and the elimination of 153 jobs.

The announcement of the closure was a surprise when "the company is making profits and management assured us that despite the Covid, everything was fine," explains Fatima, representative of the CGT. It is a worrying announcement, especially for employees who fear losing their job overnight, while no closing date has yet been communicated by management.

15 October

Bangladesh: Media report on a feature look at how Bangladeshi garment factory workers felt scared at the beginning of the pandemic and await vaccination.

Cambodia: Media report on how many garment workers are worried that Covid-19 has driven up the price of goods for living. They fear the recently announced $2 minimum-wage rise will not meet growing expenses.

Ms. Sokha, who has been working in the garment industry for almost 10 years, said that raising the minimum wage by $2 would not help with her family's expenses because the price of goods has gone up in almost everything since the pandemic hit.

India: Media report on how Covid crippled a particular part of the garment industry.

Handloom weaving, among smallest components of textile MSMEs, took a massive hit due to the lockdowns, which saw consumer demand plummet, crippling garment industry as a whole. Karnataka accounts for 20 per cent of the country’s total garment production.

But the garment factories in the state have had to lay off a significant amount of the workforce due to the pandemic troubles. According to a study by the Bengaluru-based Alternative Law Forum (ALF), many smaller units with barely 500 to 1,000 employees have folded, unable to bear the financial losses. This has had a trickle down effect on the entire supply chain, from textile traders to the loom owners and weavers. 

Pakistan: Karamat Ali, Director of Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, (below) says the burden of the Covid related global recession in garment production has been pushed onto suppliers & workers from the Global South, not helped by the race-to-the-bottom culture promoted by brands. 

14 October

Cambodia: Media report that according to Heng Sour, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, 434 factories had tested nearly 70,000 workers after returning to work from last week's Pchum Ben holiday. According to test results from 08 to 12 October, 375 workers tested positive.

India: Media report on how Covid-19 has put the clock back 20 years on child labour in Indian t-shirt factories. The garment hub of Tiruppur in India employs 700,000 and exports up to US$4 billion annually to global brands including Tommy Hilfiger, Zara, and Gap. Until recently, it had been making progress in eliminating child labour. Then Covid-19 came along, bringing with it a resurgence in child labor.  

Vietnam: Media report on how workers in Vietnam forced to work to maintain profits of US companies. Put bluntly, highly exploited Vietnamese sweatshop workers are being effectively imprisoned by the profit demands of US corporates.

Steve Lamar, president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, has admitted that some US companies were keeping manufacturing at their Vietnam suppliers going through a “three-in-one place” policy, “where workers eat, sleep and work at factories”.

Jason Chen, owner of the Singtex garment factory, said: “This year in the USA, everybody wants to go shopping. Some goods cannot be delivered in the right time. So it really will affect the holiday.” The company’s 350-person factory in Binh Duong Province is operating with 80 people who live permanently on the premises, which is allowed by the government in a bid to minimize the hit to exports."

11 October

Bangladesh: Media report that protesting RMG workers left the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway after 4 hours

The garment workers’ protest was a direct response to the sudden closure of two RMG factories in Gazipur.

Workers of both factories found notices of closure hanging on the main gates when they came to work in the morning, stating that they will remain closed till October 24.

Although the management of said factories could not be reached for comment, the notice said the authorities were closing the factories as they faced huge losses due to the pandemic and were not in a situation to continue operation.

Sri Lanka (1): Media report on the success of the clothing sector’s Covid-19 policies.

The country’s vaccination programme has proved a success with 90% of its employees having been jabbed with a single dose and 70% double-jabbed since June, helping drive its clothing export sales.

“At the current pace of vaccinations, we anticipate that the entire workforce will have received both their doses by latest mid-October 2021,” said Yohan Lawrence, Sri Lanka’s Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), adding however that “a small percentage, say around three to five percent would be a recurring one given new recruits etc.”

Industry good Covid-19 practice (such as weekly PCR testing and push for vaccinations) and contribution to setting up 11 intermediate care centeres nationwide have helped achieve this growth and the JAAF has additionally released a five-point framework of policies in August. These are: ensuring a safe working environment for employees; enhancing backward integration (through textile parks like Eravur); working with the government on improving export market access (such as a proposed free trade agreement with the UK); positioning Sri Lanka’s apparel industry as a global hub and premium exporter by attracting talent for design into the sector; and developing the competitiveness of small-and-medium-sized players in the sector.

Sri Lanka (2): According to information from the CCC network, the National Labour Advisory Council unions have submitted a joint letter to the Minister of Finance demanding an increase of wages by Rs.1000 per month.

The letter cited private sector export manufacturing employees’ contribution to economic growth despite hazardous circumstances (which led to increased export revenue in 2021 despite the pandemic, especially in the garment sector) as well as the rising costs of living. It pointed out that although the export manufacturing sector was declared an essential service, employees did not receive any special allowance adequate with the service.

The gross loss of wages and other benefits to garment workers from March to May 2020 alone is estimated as the US $ 24 million. The number of job losses is also significant, with the amount of jobs falling from 500,000 to 350,000.

Two suggestion were given:

1. Setting the minimum Daily Wage of all private-sector employees at Rs. 1,000 and increasing the existing National Minimum Wage of Rs. 16,000 inclusive of existing budget relief allowance up to Rs. 26,000.

2. Proposing to extend the salary increase to include workers who are currently entitled to a minimum monthly salary of Rs. 60,000.

8 October

Bangladesh: Media report that a study found drastic negative Covid impact on  women RMG workers’ working and living conditions

A study conducted by a research team from the University of Aberdeen (UK) has found that the working conditions and living environment of female RMG workers in Bangladesh has been drastically impacted by the pandemic and needs to be improved.

One of the main actions mentioned was the need for educating female RMG workers on their human rights and labour rights, incorporating RMG women workers in the government’s social safety net programmes, a wide dissemination of the welfare and service provisions of relevant organisations, and skill development for employment generation.

The team has found that workers are being forced to do unpaid overtime to meet unachievable production targets or paid overtime to earn enough to survive, while factories which closed for the lockdown terminated the contracts of pregnant women.

Dr Shamima Haque, member of the team, said, ‘’Our findings show that Covid-19 has widened the already existing gender inequality, and that there is limited protection available for women.

“The exploitation of women in the garment sector during Covid-19 era demands credible mechanisms from both the UK and Bangladesh governments, including forming independent and multistakeholder ‘watchdog’ bodies to hold retailers and their suppliers accountable.”, said Professor Muhammad Azizul Islam, another member.

Global: Media report that Human Rights Violations Are Increasing in Fashion’s Manufacturing Hubs

A new report published Thursday by risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft found that for many workers in fashion’s global supply chains, the last 18 months have been a period of crisis due to labour rights abuses which did not start with the pandemic but did grow worse.

The report compared the company’s 2017 and 2021 human right index scores of major sourcing and manufacturing hubs, finding violations (including forced labour, modern slavery, child labour and low worker health and safety) have increased between the two periods, pointing to a steady-trend of labour rights degradation since before the pandemic. Covid-19 has however compounded the issue, the report said, with garment workers in some cases expected to continue working amid outbreaks without being prioritised for vaccination.

Although workers and activists in the industry have had some wins (such as The Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh), author of the report Sofia Nazalya noted that progress does not necessarily reach the informalised and under-regulated corners of the industry. “The complexity of the supply chain, and the number of informal workers within [that] supply chain, makes it difficult to guarantee that across the board, [workers’] occupational health and safety is guaranteed.”

India: Media report on major gains made by West Bengali workers through CITU-led festive bonus movement

The yearly bonus for the autumn festive season, a standard practice in West Bengal, has taken a blow due to the pandemic, forcing workers to take up a fight to reclaim it this year. While garment workers in the organised sector are still getting a bonus this year, those in the unorganised sector (making up most of the workforce) have been denied the bonus this year as it would mean workers being laid off despite having government directives as backing.

Laos: Media report the government has begun to allow garment factories that meet COVID-19 prevention and control requirements to resume operations.

To open factories must be assessed by the National Committee for assessing pandemic control and the level of risk of COVID-19 infection. Factories in the red zone that want to reopen must have dormitories for workers right on the factory premises.

Some factories had to close due to new outbreaks and COVID-19 cases. According to the Lao Garment Industry Association, factories that are allowed to reopen this time must ensure measures on labour safety and epidemic prevention according to regulations of the Ministry of Health and bear full responsibility in case of an outbreak of COVID-19.

To date, the total number of COVID-19 cases in Laos has reached 26,876, including 23 deaths.

6 October

Bangladesh: Media report that 300,000 new RMG jobs mask a the reality about employment growth in the sector

As previously reported in this live-blog, according to Vice President of BGMEA, Shahidullah Azim, increased orders from the EU and US have created 300,000 additional jobs in the RMG sector.

However, this surge has likely been driven mainly by better health conditions and preparedness against the pandemic in the West, bringing back business as usual. Coupled with the move of orders from Vietnam to competing companies in other countries, including Bangladesh, has created a surge in orders that while real is most likely only temporary, a potentially unsustainable short-run response.

This raises the question: will this create long-term changes in exports growth and employment in RMG sectors?

What is more, the RMG industry is incorporating more automation into its production process, leading to increased production. According to economists, this is one of the reasons behind slow recovery in terms of job loss.

Global: Media report that brands still fail to pay workers fair wages during pandemic, as unions & campaigners call for more transparency

All the brands included in research conducted by Fashion Checker are still failing to guarantee the workers in their supply chain living or even pre-pandemic wages, breaking their promises to respect labour rights in their supply chains, confirming the need for binging agreements such as a Wage Assurance, which the global Pay Your Workers coalition has urged them to sign.

The data, collected in collaboration with Fashion Revolution, highlights the need for transparency, showing that 60% (159) of the studied brands do not comply with the Transparency Pledge while only 17% (46) disclose information about their supply chain.

“I have to pay debt, water, and electricity bills monthly, but my wages are not enough. I don't want to see high production targets with a decreasing number of workers to meet them. We don't have enough income to pay for our basic living costs.” said a worker from Cambodia who produces for Primark.

Vietnam: Media report that Ho Chi Minh City companies support workers amid closures to keep them

Many HCMC companies have been providing financial and other support to their workers to keep them in the city amid the long closures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

For example, one of the companies, Thanh Cong Textile Garment Investment Trading, has seen most of its employees return to work since October 4th, a success amid the labour shortage in HCMC. According to a representative, this can be attributed to its policies aimed at offering workers security, such as  it continuing to pay a minimum salary and offering assistance with paperwork for government relief.

However the Deputy Minister of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs Le Minh Tan has also said: "Cash support is a short-term solution. In the long run businesses need to quickly stabilize operations so workers can have security. This is the best way to keep workers in the city".

4 October

Cambodia: Media report that the The Ethical Trading Inititative (ETI) is calling on garment factory owners in Cambodia to regard the new minimum wage settlement as a "floor not a ceiling".

The ETI says the new minimum wage, which has been set at US$194 per month following tripartite talks between employers, unions and the government, is not enough to meet garment workers' basic needs.

"Minimum wages are a floor, not a ceiling," it said in a statement. "ETI would expect responsible brands to work with their suppliers and local unions to establish a clear plan to progress all wages towards a living wage.

Vietnam: Media report that workers are fleeing Ho Chi Minh City as long lockdown eases.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly migrant workers, left Ho Chi Minh City over the weekend as it has eased its lockdown measures, triggering fears of labour shortages and more disruption to manufacturing. This comes at a point where the city and its nearby industrial provinces are experiencing a labour shortage and resultant slump in GDP due to Covid-19 curbs.

We left our home behind for the city in search for better jobs but now we are tired," said Tran Thi Them, 32, as she queued for a compulsory Covid-19 test before leaving. Them lost her job at a garment factory in July, when the city began imposing curbs, and has been confined to her 10-square-metre rented room amid restrictions on leaving the house.

Vietnam has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Southeast Asia, with less than 11% of its residents having received at least two doses, with nearly half of all cases and 77% of all deaths due to COVID-19 taking place in Ho Chi Minh City.


1 October

Global: Media report that fashion brands are increasingly shifting away from global supply chains and low-cost manufacturing hubs in Asia

The catalysts for this shift have been the COVID-19 pandemic and real wage growth, which has narrowed the cost gap. One of the brands making this move is the Italian brand Benetton, which hopes to halve its production in Asia by the end of 2022 in order to be less dependent on the ever-changing transport costs and uncertain delivery times. Numerous other brands are planning a similar shift in order to bring production closer. Due to the investments involved, such moves are likely to become lasting rather than just temporary.

Vietnam: Media report that Ho Chi Minh City has begun lifting COVID-19 restrictions

Today, according to city officials, HCMC has started easing its pandemic restrictions which have been in place for four months and heavily impacted commercial activity. From now on the city will be free of checkpoints and travel permits. However, while over 98% of the city’s adults have been vaccinated, the overall vaccination rate in Vietnam is just 9.8% due to vaccine shortage.

Nearly 35 per cent of textile-garment factories in the country were forced to close down due to the pandemic, according to the Vietnam Textile and Apparel Association (VITAS).

Information and campaigns

General info on COVID-19 in the garment industry

PayYourWorkers campaign

Resources

Demands, recommendations, proposals

CCC list of demands upon brand and retailers.

Global union and employer joint call to action.

WRC and MHSSN safety recommendations.

ILO's COVID-19 business resilience guides for suppliers.

The Circle has created a guide for suppliers in the garment industry on 'force majeure'.

Information trackers

WRC's brand tracker on which brands pay for orders

Business and Human Rights Resource Centre maintains a continually updated live-resource of articles on the influence of COVID19 on supply chains and is tracking brand responses to the crisis in dealing with their orders.

Business and Human Rights Resource Centre's created a COVID-19 Action Tracker, monitoring industry responses, government actions and workers’ demands.

Labour Start collects materials coming in from trade unions around the world.

The International Trade Union Confederation collects trade union news on the COVID-19 crisis.

ICNL has a civic freedom tracker.

Omega research foundation tracks excessive use of force by law enforcement during the pandemic.

HRDN resource on business, human rights, digital rights and privacy.

Background and position papers

WRC's white-paper "Who will bail out the workers?"

WRC and Penn State University on cancelled orders in Bangladesh "Abandoned?"

OECD's paper on COVID-19 and responsible business conduct.

ECCHR policy paper "Garment Industry in intensive care?"

ECCHR, SOMO and Pax paper on responsible business relationships.

AFWA's paper The emperor has no clothes.

Traidcraft Exchange "Bailing out the supply chain"

ECCHR-WRC paper "Force majeure"

COVID-19 Report by Decent Work Check: Indonesia and Ethiopia garment industry.

UN Special Rapporteur report "Looking back to look ahead"

WRC and Penn State University paper "Unpaid Billions"

WRC and Penn State University paper "Apparel Brands' Purchasing Practices during COVID-19"

ILO research brief "The supply chain ripple effect"

WRC research report "Hunger in the Apparel Supply Chain" & Spanish version

BHRRC report "Wage theft and pandemic profits"

IHRB and Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh studies at UC Berkeley report "The Weakest Link in the Supply Chain - How the Pandemic is Affecting Bangladesh’s Garment Workers"

Basic health information

Hesperian Health Guides' COVID-19 Fact Sheet

published 2021-10-18