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[14 April, 2020] According to Fair Wear’s Executive Director Alexander Kohnstamm garment workers are facing more than loss of income and an increased risk for exploitation. They are also particularly vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic because of the lack social security and health insurance.
For many years, European consumers and businesses have benefited from low cost production in the global garment industry. Prices have been so low that most factories have insufficient buffers to survive this crisis. Evidently workers have not been paid enough to provide for their families and especially do not have any savings to fall back on.
When garment workers lose their income they will have to look for other solutions. A large number of people in countries with already weak health systems will thus have no other option but to put themselves and others at risk looking for any work they can get. This puts them in the vulnerable position where they face a double threat. On the one hand, they must protect themselves from contracting the virus; on the other hand, they need to work in the factories to feed themselves and their families.
Below you find more information on the impact of the pandemic on workers’ wages and social security. You can read more in Fair Wear’s Covid-19 dossier that we’re updating as the situation develops.
In many garment producing countries, factories are forced to (temporarily) stop production. Many factories face bankruptcy and governments may not have measures in place to help them. Workers will thus not get their dues and may not even be given notice. Temporary workers without proper contracts are especially at risk. They will be the first ones to lose work.In cases where workers are not fired, they may be forced to take unpaid or annual leave. Even if local governments require employers to continue paying workers regular wages, workers might not get what they are legally owed. For example, most garment workers in China and Eastern Europe are paid by piece-rate. Therefore they will not receive pay since there has not been any work.
A second big risk for garment workers is not being able to protect themselves from the virus outbreak. Many workers are not covered under social security or health insurance. If they contract Covid-19, they will not have enough money to pay for treatment. Many manufacturing countries do not have the healthcare infrastructure in place to cope with a pandemic of this scale. Many garment workers already lack access to basic medical care. When there is no paid sick leave or pay during quarantine, there can be an increased risk. If an infected worker goes to work, he/she will infect others. But not going to work is also not an option, because there is no social security to cover the loss of income.
This outbreak clearly shows that the global garment industry urgently needs to embrace a New Normal, in which fair prices and living wages are the norm. Read more about the impact of the crisis on the garment industry in the Fair Wear Covid-19 dossier. Also, read Fair Wear’s Annabel Meurs’ blog post about what brands can do to mitigate risks, and the recent interview I gave to the Dutch magazine Vice Versa about this same topic.