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Asian garment workers owed almost 12 billion dollars in wages amid pandemic

By Huw Hughes

Jul 19, 2021

Fashion

Image: AFP

As fashion brands and retailers across the world return to profitability following what has been an immensely difficult period of international store courses and plummeting demand for fashion, for those making the world’s clothing, the story is far from over.

According to a new report by the Clean Clothes Campaign, Asian garment workers are owed almost 12 billion dollars in unpaid income and severance in the first year of the pandemic.

The ‘Still Un(der)paid’ report estimates that workers are owed 11.85 billion dollars for the period from March 2020 through March 2021 as employers withheld or reduced wages and international fashion brands and retailers cancelled orders, refused to pay for goods or demanded price reductions.

The Clean Clothes Campaign said it estimated its wage gap figures based on “all available information” such as statements from employers, industry and worker surveys, and media reports.

Khalid Mahmood, from Labour Education Foundation in Pakistan, said the figure represented “an unimaginable and often irreparable human sorrow”. He said this was not happening “in just that one factory in Bangladesh or Pakistan”, but “throughout the garment industry”.

The report said an estimated 1.6 million garment workers were dismissed across seven countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Pakistan.

The Clean Clothes Campaign said many dismissed workers were not paid their full legal entitlements to severance pay, and others who were put on furlough were only paid a small percentage of their usual wages.

Workers in all researched countries, except for Indonesia, had lost pay equivalent to at least twice the average monthly wage.

‘We cannot count on brands’ own initiatives’

The Clean Clothes Campaign is calling on apparel brands to negotiate an enforceable agreement to assure wages, establish a severance guarantee fund and ensure respect for basic labour rights.

The organisation said: “Such a binding agreement, to be negotiated and signed by trade unions with brands, individual employers, or employer associations, will require signatory brands to ensure workers in their supply chains receive their regular wages during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic, in addition to ensuring payment of severance compensation for workers at factories that close or undertake a mass dismissal, and respect basic labour rights.”

The report builds on the Clean Clothes Campaign’s August 2020 ‘Un(der)paid in the Pandemic’ report, which estimated that the income and severance loss for the first three months of the pandemic was in the range of 3.2 to 5.8 billion dollars.

According to Ineke Zeldenrust from the Clean Clothes Campaign, not enough has been done to help workers despite over 100 fashion brands joining together in a ‘Call to Action’ for the garment industry since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We cannot count on brands’ own initiatives or the voluntary programmes they hide behind to deliver for workers,” she said. “It is urgent that companies negotiate and sign a binding and enforceable agreement with unions to prevent millions of garment workers and their families from being driven even deeper into destitution.”