Garment workers worldwide ‘going hungry’ as pandemic hits wages

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The coronavirus pandemic has left garment workers across the world facing a spectre of “going hungry” and are forced to take out loans to feed their families, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) said in a report this week.

The WRC interviewed 396 garment workers across 158 factories in nine countries – Myanmar, India, Indonesia, Lesotho, Haiti, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Cambodia and Bangladesh – for the study.

Entitled ‘Hunger in the Apparel Supply Chain’, it found that 38% of garment workers had lost their jobs since the onset of the pandemic.

While those that were able to retain their jobs, the report finds that one in five go hungry on a daily basis as wages sink by 20% on average in the global garment industry.

“Most workers are currently unable to feed their families adequately and they are bracing themselves for worse times ahead,” said Penelope Kyritsis, strategic research director at the WRC.

“The most important action for brands is to mobilise funds to sustain garment workers’ incomes through the remainder of the crisis,” she said.

The new report, which polled about 400 workers in nine countries found that 75% have borrowed money to buy food this year.

“Given the well-documented risk that debts can lead to severe labour exploitation, including forced labour for low-wage workers, this is a worrying trend,” the WRC said.

Almost 90% of the workers said they and their families were eating less, with most expecting to cut back even further.

The garment industry, which employs tens of millions of people worldwide – mostly women, has been ravaged by the pandemic and workers have lost some US$5.8 billion in wages as retailers shut shops and cancel orders.

Fashion brands cancelled an estimated US$15billion of orders when the global lockdown closed retail outlets earlier this year.

Leading brands have been “leveraging desperation” to demand price cuts from struggling manufacturers, the US-based Center for Global Workers’ Rights said in a report in October.

Factory bosses, meanwhile, have used the pandemic as cover to terminate unionised workers, according to labour advocates.

Cambodian seamstress Proum Sovuthy, who has been doing ad-hoc shifts at different factories since her long-time employer shut up shop, said meat had become a rare treat for her and her two children.

“Some days I can buy rice, some days I can’t,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“People are kind, and they often share with me, but I don’t want to be a beggar – it affects my dignity.” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)

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