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Protecting Garment Workers During COVID-19 Crisis

Emergency Relief Urgent as Millions Face Losing Their Livelihoods

Garment factory workers wear face masks as they walk out at the end of their work shift March 20, 2020, near Phnom Penh, Cambodia. © 2020 AP Photo/Heng Sinith

“When will those of us who were fired get paid?” “Should I go to the factory?” “When will I get my wages?” Concerned workers have been swamping Kalpona Akter’s grassroots organization, the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity, for advice around the clock. “Workers are really worried about paying for food and rent,” Akter told me.

Millions of workers in garment factories across Asia and elsewhere find their jobs at stake as global economic uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic causes clothing brands and retailers to cancel and reduce orders. These workers, primarily women, are often the lifeline to keeping their families out of poverty.

The looming question is whether brands, factories, and governments that depend on these workers’ labor will abandon them or instead provide a safety net that mitigates the economic devastation for them and their families.

There are some positive examples. The Sindh provincial government in Pakistan announced a two-week ban on workers being laid off, created an emergency fund, and established a tripartite process involving credible trade unions and local labor rights organizations to gather complaints about nonpayment of wages.

South Africa has an Unemployment Insurance Fund for workers. Fachmy Abrahams, the national collective bargaining officer of South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union explained they were able to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement allowing six weeks’ paid time off for between 70,000 and 80,000 garment workers, with four weeks paid from the fund and two weeks by employers.

Sadly, even such short-term measures are the exception rather than the norm.

Governments, brands, retailers, and suppliers, should work together with labor rights groups and unions to minimize economic harm to workers in their global supply chains.

Global union federations and the International Organisation of Employers (IOE) have proposed a joint call for action involving the International Labour Organization (ILO). Brands and retailers should support it, pay for goods already produced or in production as originally agreed upon, and reform their purchasing practices. Garment-exporting and importing governments, donors, and international financial institutions should support the program’s goals to create emergency relief funds and monitor disbursement to all workers through a tripartite process. All parties should work together with rights groups to create effective social protection aligned with ILO standards, including sickness benefits, unemployment, employment injury, and medical insurance.

Garment workers shouldn’t have to worry about putting food on the table.

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