The fashion industry is facing calls to step in and protect the wages of the 40 million garment workers in their supply chains around the world who face destitution as factories close and orders dry up in the wake of the Covid-19 epidemic.
Many factories in garment-producing countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam are already closing due to a shortage of raw materials from China and declining orders from western clothing brands.
Quarantine and self-isolation measures being rapidly imposed by governments across the world are likely to see the wide-scale closure of thousands more factories in the days and week to come.
Campaigners are demanding that brands take responsibility for the millions of workers in their supply chains who are likely to fall into crippling poverty as they lose their jobs and struggle to provide for their families.
The Clean Clothes Campaign, a coalition of campaigning groups, is also calling on brands to ensure that workers who contract the virus are allowed to take sick leave without repercussions from the factories and continue to receive their wages throughout their period of self-isolation.
Scott Nova, executive director at the Worker Rights Consortium, part of the Clean Clothes Campaign, said that poverty wages, unsafe and unsanitary workplaces and poor health already makes the garment workforce highly vulnerable to the worst effects of the Covid-19 virus
“The fashion industry has evolved in a way that makes it hard in normal times for the people who actually make the clothes we all wear every day to survive on the poverty wages they are paid,” he said
“While it is understandable that companies are focusing on the needs of their local staff, clothing retailers must accept that if they choose a business model that relies on the labour of millions of garment workers overseas, then these people are their workers as well.”
Nova says it is impossible that garment workers would be able to save enough from their salaries to have funds to fall back on if they lose their jobs or are unable to go into work.
“Many of these workers live in countries where labour laws and protections are not upheld,” he says. “The track record of how governments in garment-producing countries and the retailers who profit from cheap labour treat workers in this industry does not bode well for the weeks to come.”
The Clean Clothes Campaign is warning that factories are closing in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Albania and across Central America
The situation for garment workers in Cambodia and Myanmar is already dire as local media reports suggest up to 10% of factories in the Yangon region of Myanmar are already closed, with workers not being paid their salaries.
In Cambodia tens of thousands of garment workers could also lose their jobs in the coming weeks if the flow of raw materials into the country does not pick up.
Under Cambodian law, employers must seek government authorisation before suspending workers and pay them 40% of the $190 (£161) monthly minimum wage for up to six months. Yet local campaigners are saying that some factories have already sacked workers without pay. Many workers cannot afford to live on their normal salaries and are therefore in high levels of debt; they are now likely to default on their loans.
Tola Moeun, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights said: “Apparel brands have been profiting from the labour of Cambodian workers. These brands now need to step up in this time of crisis.”.