We all are by now more or less aware as to the rather significant number of garment workers who have had to lose their jobs and source of livelihood to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to the Bangladesh garment industry. And even those who managed to save their jobs during this unprecedented crisis, have had to compromise in terms of wages it seems.
According to a new survey, during the pandemic, which is ongoing still, wages of the garment workers reportedly dropped by 50 per cent to 65 per cent.
The study conducted by Care Bangladesh, a draft report of which was presented at a multi-consultative meeting not so long ago, taking part in which Labour Leader Kalpona Akter expressed frustration over the large number of workers who lost their jobs and returned home empty-handed in the pandemic, but there was no social protection for them even as she maintained that the current labour law is not for workers, but for employers while underlining that the law must be for both workers and employers and there is no better time than now for ratification of Article 190 of the ILO Convention.
Now, as to the impact of pandemic on the workers’ wages, brands and buyers are supposed to be held responsible as major buyers have reportedly failed to ensure workers’ wages amid the pandemic.
The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), which is a leading organisation of global labour unions in the apparel industry, revealed in a report about evidence of ‘wage theft’ in the supply chains of major brands, which caused non-payment to apparel manufacturers in Bangladesh and other sourcing countries amid the pandemic.
The Guardian also quoted the report recently, which alleged that major brands such as Primark, Nike and H&M were responsible for ‘wage theft’, which led to devastating consequences amid the pandemic for garment workers in Bangladesh, apart from Indonesia and Cambodia even as the report underlined that while none of the brands had broken any laws, they had failed to ensure that their workers were properly paid throughout the pandemic.
Interviews with dozens of garment workers in Bangladesh apart from Indonesia and Cambodia reportedly discovered many had experienced times last year when they had not been paid their full wages while of the 49 workers interviewed, more than half said they were paid less than before the pandemic.
They also said that workers faced increasing production targets amid a trend of mass layoffs and lack of overtime pay even as estimates suggest global fashion brands last year cancelled billions of pounds of clothing orders placed with supplier factories as Coronavirus lockdowns shuttered high streets across the world.
There is a growing body of evidence that ‘wage theft’ of poorly paid workers has occurred at a significant scale throughout the pandemic, linked to many of the world’s largest fashion brands, said the report.
Meanwhile, quizzed about the report by media, Managing Director of Windy Apparels Ltd — Windy Apparels reportedly supplies to Primark, Nike and H&M —Mesbah Uddin Khan reportedly stated that at the beginning of the pandemic, the buyers had some problems.
“Their shops were closed due to lockdown and they also might be suffering from indecision about orders. Orders of Primark and some other brands were postponed for some time. At that time our workers had to face some problems as we did not get our payments,” reportedly added Mesbah even as he added that there are no such difficulties right now, as most of the brands have received their orders and paid for them while manufacturers had also paid the wages and allowances of the workers through incentives and stimulus packages.
Further, the latest findings of the Clean Clothes Campaign underlined that as much as US $ 844 million was owed in wages and severance pay to garment workers in Bangladesh since the beginning of the pandemic.
The labour rights group reportedly arrived at the number by collating the findings of various organisations over the past year, including the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Worker Rights Consortium and the Mapped in Bangladesh (MiB).
“This wage gap arose from several factors affecting garment manufacturers, including brands cancelling orders and withholding payments, raw material shortages and national lockdowns in some garment-producing countries,” added the report even as it presented the CCC’s latest projection of the economic toll of the pandemic on garment workers.
Based on the estimated wage gaps in seven production countries, namely Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the Campaign found that garment workers lost a combined US$ 11.85 billion from March 2020 through March 2021 even as the estimated wage gap for the workers in Cambodia was US $ 343 million, for India US $ 1.02 billion, for Indonesia US $ 721 million, for Myanmar US $ 422 million, for Pakistan US $ 404 million, and for Sri Lanka US $ 313 million.
The first Un(der)Paid in the Pandemic report of the CCC estimated a wage gap of US $ 501 million for Bangladesh from March to May 2020, which was the period when up to 89 per cent of factories were temporarily closed.
The report cited another study by the MiB that states that 3.5 lakh garment workers lost their jobs even as the MiB’s database covers three-quarters of the garment industry in Bangladesh, so the number of jobs lost was extrapolated to be 4.76 lakh for the whole sector while a separate study by the Bangladesh Institute for Labour Studies, in September 2020, estimated that around 4 lakh garment workers might have lost their jobs, said the report even as the CCC averaged the numbers and concluded that 4.38 lakh garment workers lost their jobs last year.
The MiB’s survey in October 2020 found that that only 3.6 per cent of factories paid the full severance owed to terminated workers, and these were small and medium-sized factories while all large factories and 86 per cent of medium-sized factories reported withholding legally owed compensation and allowances and paying only the salary owed.
“Allowing for higher worker numbers in large factories, we estimate that 95 per cent of workers dismissed during the pandemic were not paid their legally owed severance,” said the report, putting the severance pay gap at US $ 151 million even as the CCC also took into consideration the non-payment of wages and Eid bonuses.
With an average of 790 workers per factory, we estimate that 7.37 lakh workers lost withheld wages of US $ 74.2 million, underlined the report while adding that considering the wage gap for furloughed workers in the five months up to July 2020, the amounts owed to workers who were terminated but not paid their legal entitlements, and the widespread non-payment of wages to employed workers during the pandemic, the total estimated wage gap for workers in Bangladesh is US $ 844 million.
This is quite an amount to say the least!
“Global brands, retailers and e-tailers remain responsible, under international standards and their own codes of conduct, for ensuring that workers employed in their supply chains are paid at least their legally mandated or regular wages – whichever is higher,” said the report, adding, “They must take direct responsibility for the workers in their supply chains.”
Further, a Worker Rights Consortium report in April estimated that total severance theft during COVID-19, across the supply chains of global brands and retailers, was US $ 500 million to US $ 850 million even as Meg Lewis, lead author of the Clean Clothes Campaign’s report said that brands have continued to profit and can afford to pay workers. They have the power and responsibility to make sure workers in their supply chains are being paid.
The report also demonstrated the estimation of wage theft while adding that Primark now pays US $ 152 per worker while they were paying US $ 157 before the pandemic even if H&M’s present and before pay has been the same, US $ 159, but they reduced payment related to bonuses and overtime while the present payment of Nike is reportedly US $ 274 which was US $ 281 before the pandemic, said the report.
Speaking to the media Kalpona Akter, who is also the Executive Director of Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS), told that due to the so-called wage theft, a number of factories laid off their workers without paying any severance.
None of the RMG workers who lost their jobs in the pandemic received any kind of severance benefit, Kalpona alleged while adding both the brands and manufacturers are responsible for this even as she underlined that they make profit through the workers’ work, but no one wants to understand the inconvenience of the worker.
“However, although the buyers have made a big chunk of profit, they showed irresponsibility like cancelling orders, not paying for shipped products, and asked for a flat discount, which put pressure on the manufacturers,” Kalpona said, adding, “Again, the manufacturers could not come to a concrete decision on the wages and allowance until they got the Government stimulus. This is how wage theft has taken place, a wage gap has also been created,” she added to end on a sombre note.