The impact of lost payments felt by garment workers whose hands sew the clothes was felt the most during the Covid pandemic when clothing brands canceled orders and delayed payments to their factories. In some cases, factory owners did not receive timely, or any payments from big brands, which resulted in delayed or withheld wages for garment workers. The contractual agreements often tipped in favor of brands, so they could delay paying for orders.
In contrast, contractual cushions meant workers already struggling to keep up with the necessities suffered from the loss of the wages they desperately needed in order to survive. Most garment workers in Asia earn the minimum wage in their country. However, minimum wages are often not sufficient to live; there is a huge gap between mandated ‘minimum wages’ and a ‘living wage,’ as defined by many human rights organizations.
In addition to food, shelter, clothing, and medical costs, a living wage covers a person’s basic needs. AWFA determines living wages by taking into account three factors: consumption units (i.e. the number of individuals that need to be supported), food costs (based on calories needed to work); and other costs besides food (rent, clothes, etc.). The living wage is also determined by the number of hours worked in a week.
Asia (and elsewhere) are home to many garment workers who often earn far less than a living wage. Delay of payments during the pandemic affected not just livelihoods but live as well. Late in spring, to verify the status of payments to garment workers in Bangladesh, Remake contacted the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the Awaj Foundation (a non-profit in Dhaka, Bangladesh), and Garment Diaries.
There were still some unpaid workers in many factories, according to reports. Although BGMEA reported that 2,200 factories paid their workers in late April, it does not include 4,500 businesses that are members of the organization. More than a quarter of workers were not paid, according to the Awaj Foundation.
According to Awaj Foundation founder and President Nazma Akter, “We can’t make the dresses without the workers.” Food paralyzes the fingers of the human body.” As reported in The Daily Star of November 3, 2020, the South Asian Network of Economic Modeling (SANEM) and Microfinance Opportunities reported that nearly 8 percent of garment workers had been unemployed in September, a significant gain from August.”
During the Covid pandemic, many garment workers in Bangladesh were laid off and faced delayed payments. A monthly report by SANEM and Microfinance Opportunities on garment worker economic issues is regularly produced as part of the project Garment Workers Diaries. Data is included regarding illness, credit costs, job security, and digital wages in the latest report. Guy Stuart of Microfinance Opportunities wrote on a blog titled, “Questions for Stakeholders,” that food security for workers reached a low in April and less than 3% of people reported adequate food intake.
Since then, this metric has improved every month, and 54% of workers reported they were eating appropriately in September.” The number of workers experiencing food insecurity has increased significantly, but a large number still faces it. As part of a discussion about the findings of the report and the economic issues facing garment workers, Dr. Rubana Huq, president of the BGMEA, and after was among several panelists on November 5.
A blog post-Stuart wrote after the panel discussion said, According to [Akter], living wages should not only be provided by employers but also by multinational brands and retailers.” Doctor Huq proposed the establishment of an all-inclusive fund for unemployed RMG workers. The Ministry of Labour and Employment manages the central fund for unemployed workers, where BGMEA members deposit funds.
“The brands also keep imposing price cuts on their suppliers, decreasing wages.” Due to the cancellations and delayed payments in the garment-making industry in recent months, the need for garment workers to receive a living wage has never been greater. Although Covid-19 vaccine may ease the pain in the First World in the coming months, there are still unreliable minimum wages being paid to Asian garment factories that keep the women making our clothes living in fear until the next time brands cut orders and refuse to pay their suppliers.
Clothing companies attempt to divert public attention from the lives and livelihoods of their makers, however, the country of origin is included on every piece of clothing, every garment you wear. A wealth of information is available on the internet about the wages and working conditions of garment workers. Sadly, most consumers never do any research on the wages of those workers in that country, so they never understand their true wages.
The reason cheap clothing is cheap, however, is because it is cheap. Consumers can afford to buy their products at a low price when brands can negotiate low production costs. To the person who sews the seams, financial savings mean poverty. In response to this perpetuated and devastating cycle, the PayUp Fashion campaign was launched, pushing fashion towards a more transparent future where brands share not only annual data on how they make their clothes but how much their workers earn as well.
Unless the deep, systemic change is implemented in the industry, most of the makers of our clothes will still be living off hand-to-mouth wages long after the crisis of Covid-19 has passed. A call for change is PayUp Fashion.
There is no doubt that this is one of the most important questions that consumers should ask. Women often make garments in Asia that earn far less than what their families need to live. To illustrate the difference between a living wage and the minimum wage in Asia, Remake compiled wage data from countries throughout Asia. We also convert all wages to US dollars. Adapted from “Tailored Wages 2019: Breaking the Impoverishment Cycle” (Clean Clothes Campaign)… A country’s minimum wage is typically equal to a garment worker’s wage in Asia.