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Dhaka Tribune

Coronavirus: Clothing brands abandon Asia workers in pandemic

Many brands and retailers have taken advantage of the coronavirus outbreak by using unfair purchasing practices that fuel labor abuses

Update : 01 Apr 2020, 03:45 PM

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said that the response of apparel brands to the coronavirus outbreak has made the financial situation worse for garment workers in Asia. Many clothing brands and retailers have canceled orders, some of which had been completed, without taking financial responsibility. 

These actions that increase worker job losses go against brands’ human rights responsibilities. 

“These are extraordinarily challenging times, yet clothing brands facing tough business decisions to ride out the Covid-19 crisis should not forsake the factory workers who make their branded products,” said Aruna Kashyap, senior counsel in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, on April 1. “Brands should take steps to minimize the devastating economic consequences for garment workers in their global supply chains and for their families who depend on this income to survive.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 manufacturers and industry experts, including brand representatives, about the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on factories in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, and other Asian countries; reviewed email communications from brand representatives to their global suppliers; and interviewed worker rights groups.

Sales of clothing brands and retailers have tumbled during the coronavirus outbreak, causing many to close their retail stores to prevent spread of the virus. 

Many brands and retailers have taken advantage of the situation by using unfair purchasing practices that fuel labor abuses. 

Manufacturers from various countries told HRW in March that very few brands assume any of the business risks when placing orders. They do not make advance payments and have long payment windows after goods are shipped.

Advance payment and shorter payment windows allow suppliers to maintain better cash flow, helping them to pay wages on time. But most brands and retailers do not offer such payment terms.

During the coronavirus crisis, many global brands and retailers have asked suppliers for various demands including the cancellation of orders for goods that workers had already made or were in the process of making, discounts for products already shipped, not taking financial responsibility or specifying when payments would occur for orders that were already made or were in process. 

According to a March 27 study by the Center for Global Workers’ Rights and Worker Rights Consortium on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis in Bangladesh, of the 316 Bangladeshi suppliers who took the survey, suppliers said that more than 95 percent of brands and retailers refused to contribute to the cost of partial wages for workers who were temporarily suspended, or severance payments for those discharged.

More brands should take steps to ensure fair treatment of workers, including payment of wages and other compensation, and minimize job loss, Human Rights Watch said.

“Global clothing brands, donors, and international financial institutions should combine forces and urgently undertake efforts with labor rights groups to help low-income workers during the Covid-19 crisis,” Kashyap said. “But longer-term measures are also needed – this pandemic has underscored that social protection schemes for workers and effective mandatory regulations to curb unfair commercial practices of brands in their supply chains are long overdue.”

Since originating in the Wuhan province of China last December, the coronavirus epidemic has infected over 850,000 people and killed more than 42,000 people globally.

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