For 15 years, Mom worked in one of Cambodia’s textile factories, subjected to grueling working hours and witnessing countless cases of exploitation at her work station. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, her employment situation worsened. Production targets increased from 350 to 400 items per hour, but her salary remained the same, and she struggled to cope with the rising costs of living.
Her story was collected by the NGO Action Aid Australia to prepare the report “Casualties of Fashion: How Garment Workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia are Wearing the Cost of COVID-19,” published in December after interviews with over 200 garment workers in both countries.
The investigation highlights the immense impact of the last two years on the garment workers who make branded clothing that is exported to Europe and the United States, the primary export markets for Cambodia and Bangladesh’s garment sectors. The countries have two of the world’s most textile-dependent economies.
“When I saw supervisors exploiting workers, I wanted to do something about it. When workers asked to leave when all their work was completed, the supervisors didn’t let them and forced them to work overtime,” detailed Mom.
“I felt that this was so wrong, but as workers we don’t have any power to talk with the employer. So, I decided to join the CATU (the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions) to organise as a group to protect workers’ rights,” she said, as quoted in the report from Action Aid Australia.
Mom was already living below minimum wage before the pandemic. When the virus spread in Cambodia, some brands began furloughing garment workers due to supply chain disruptions, store closures, and the economic downturn. With job cuts, pay cuts, and rights threatened, the workers were pushed into poverty, hunger, and debt, as Action Aid Australia detailed in the report.
Christie Miedema, campaign and outreach coordinator at the alliance Clean Clothes Campaign, explained in an email that at the beginning of the pandemic, in a fit of panic, many brands cancelled all of their orders, even those already in production.
“This meant a major blow for factory owners, many of which spent the next year making up for this,” Miedema said. As a result, desperate factory owners were “willing to accept any order and price a brand was prepared to offer
During the Delta wave, which hit much harder in Asia than in Europe or the United States, where vaccination programs were gaining strength, the employer associations in many garment countries therefore lobbied their governments to not lock down their factories, because they felt they could not afford to lose more orders, recalled Miedema.
April 2021 was especially bad in Cambodia and Mom’s factory closed temporarily amid the COVID-19 surge. As a result, Mom lost her salary. Although she was able to access a payment of $40 from the government, her employer refused to pay her anything.
Then Mom and CATU pleaded her case and the factory agreed to pay her20 percent of her salary plus some fringe benefits. She reached a total of $60, not enough to cover daily expenses.
As Michelle Higelin, the executive director of Action Aid Australia, detailed in another email, there have been some signs of recovery in the fashion industries in Bangladesh and Cambodia due to the reopening of stores in Europe and the United States. Still, the expert said the impacts of the pandemic “continue to devastate workers at the bottom of global supply chains.”
The main problem is the low wages in the garment industry, which means that workers not only struggle to cover their daily living costs but are also unable to generate savings in the event of job loss or reduced working hours.
As Higelin detailed, in Cambodia the average salary increased from $257 in January 2020 to $272 in August 2021. While the minimum wage was increased in 2021 to $192, this fell short of the $12 per month pay rise called for by unions.
“Despite continuous action from trade unions in Cambodia, wage increases have not kept pace with the rate of inflation, and remain well below the living wage, which the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) calculated to be $588 in 2020,” Higelin said.
AFWA is an Asian-led global labor and social alliance that developed a methodology to calculate a living wage that would enable garment workers to earn enough to live in dignity.
In January 2020, Higelin added, only 2.2 percent of workers who participated in her NGO’s survey were earning a living wage. More than double that figure, 5.6 percent, earned no more than the minimum wage.
In Bangladesh, the average salary in January 2020 was $104, and by August 2021 it had fallen to $96. The minimum wage for the garment industry was set at $91 per month in 2018.
Higelin said that the Bangladeshi government planned an increase in the minimum wage in 2021 to $96 per month, a figure well below union demands and barely enough to keep up with inflation. However, lobbying from the private sector resulted in the government delaying the minimum wage increase, leaving workers to cover increased living costs from their already insufficient wages.
Before the pandemic, many garment factories in Cambodia were not standing up for workers’ rights. Now, workers report that the situation is getting worse.
Over 90 percent of workers surveyed said they are more concerned about their job security since the pandemic hit. Meanwhile, 56 percent said their rights at work have worsened since the pandemic began, according to Action Aid Australia.
Many workers mentioned that they were afraid to make a complaint, and noted personal consequences, such as being yelled at by their supervisor or given an increased workload, if they raised issues related to workers’ rights.
Respondents also said that since the pandemic started, employers have taken too long to respond to complaints. However, with job security so precarious, most workers were afraid to organize a protest to pressure factories to respond to their concerns and demands.
Miedema said that although many brands are making big profits again, a lot of factories are still suffering, and workers will be the first to feel that.
She explained that the alliance she works for feels there has been no real progress in measures to bring justice to workers or to ensure that the situation experienced by Mom and other workers due to the pandemic will not happen again.
“That is why unions and labor organizations from a range of countries have launched a proposal for brands to sign a binding agreement in which they commit to pay for the wages that workers have lost, pay into a fund that would compensate workers if a factory goes bankrupt and has guarantees on the right to union activity,” Miedema said.
In her opinion, this would protect workers against being left penniless after bankruptcies in the future. The model is also affordable, according to calculations by the Clean Clothes Campaign. It would cost brands only 10 cents per T-shirt that they produce to provide wage security for workers like Mom.