Asia’s garment manufacturers are reeling from the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic. They suffered from restrictions and lockdowns in their own countries and saw international demand for their products collapse. This is particularly dramatic in countries where the textile sector accounts for a large share of all exports.
Researchers from the International Labour Organization (ILO) have studied the impact of the pandemic on 10 major textile producing nations in Asia: Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
According to the ILO, around 65 million people work in the textile industry in these countries, or 75% of all textile workers worldwide.
According to the study, the global textile trade collapsed in the first half of the year. Exports to the major buying regions in EU, the USA and Japan fell by up to 70%. At the same time, manufacturers’ supply chains were disrupted, with shortages of cotton, cloth and other necessary materials.
For the textile industry, this meant less work and less income. Thousands of factories were closed down, initially because of regulations to fight the pandemic, says Christian Viegelahn from the ILO’s office in the region.
“The typical garment worker in the region lost out on at least two to four weeks of work and saw only three in five of her coworkers called back to the factory when it reopened,” said Viegelahn.
Garment workers — most of them are women — suffered from significant income losses. In Bangladesh, the median income of textile workers almost halved between April and May, from the equivalent of $113 to just $65 (€95 to just €54) per month, according to a study cited in the ILO report. Median income means that half of the workers earn more, the other half less.
In addition, wages were often paid much later than the law permits. As a result, 77% of the Bangladeshi workers surveyed in June said they had eaten less than they should have because they could not afford to buy enough food. In May, protests of workers led to clashes with the police.
To soften the impact of the pandemic, most governments offered some form of help to factory owners and workers. In Cambodia, the government collaborated with employers to provide a $70 benefit to furloughed workers. But a study showed that only 41% of surveyed workers in May had actually received the full benefit.
The garment industry is the largest industrial employer for women in the Asia-Pacific region. In countries like Cambodia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, between 15-20% of women work in the industry.
Garment workers in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka took to the streets to demand payment of wages in May, police later dispersed them
Even before the coronavirus, women were usually paid less than men, worked longer hours and also took care of the household and children. “The pandemic has exacerbated preexisting inequalities,” the ILO report said.
Trade union membership tends to be generally low in the region, and in particular in the garment industry, according to the ILO. The report mentions unionization rates as low as 1% in Myanmar, 10% in Cambodia and 15% in Sri Lanka. According to the report, the restrictions imposed because of COVID-19 have further reduced union activity.
For the textile industry, the damage caused by the pandemic is already greater than the effect of the global financial crisis from 2008, said the ILO. “The depth of those declines and the speed and shape of the eventual recovery in the sector will likely not be (fully) visible until 2021 or 2022.”
In any case, ILO Regional Director Chihoko Asada Miyakawa hopes that the crisis will lead to a greater willingness to cooperate. “It is vital that governments, workers, employers and other industry stakeholders work together to navigate these unprecedented conditions and help forge a more human-centred future for the industry.”
The idea of farming seems today more abstract than ever before. Jost Franko’s latest photo essay brings this distant world back to our reality, in which the ridiculous price of garments is paid by workers living in dire conditions. Pictured here is a relative of Issa Gira (67) from Burkina Faso, who’s been growing cotton for 30 years, but still earns less than a dollar a day.
After the crop is harvested, farmers just like these two in Burkina Faso have to bring the cotton to the collection centers in nearby villages. Just before the market day, farmers help each other press the cotton into a huge, hard mass so they’re able to weigh their loads. “No one really cares about farming, the first part of the supply chain,” says Franko.
Cotton farming gives work to more than four million people in Burkina Faso, and it is its second-most-valuable resource after gold. Sofitex is one of the three companies in the country that buys cotton from farmers and provides loans to cultivators, and it exports around 540,000 tons of cotton annually. Local farmers are seen here loading cotton into one of the many Sofitex containers.
“Due to western cotton subsidies, which are creating a dumping effect, poor countries are in a huge loss,” says Franko. In his opinion, the production of cotton and garments in third-world countries is just another form of colonialism. “Small workshops sometimes take subcontracted work for larger companies. The rent is expensive for most workers, so they sleep in the factories,” he adds.
In this photo, garment workers cut the textile in a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the heart of the global cheap clothing industry. They earn 2.20 euros ($2.36) a day on average. Companies like HM, Walt Disney or Lidl have their garments and home textile lines produced in the Dhaka region, which made the headlines in 2013 when the Rana Plaza sweatshop building collapsed, killing 1,129 workers.
“It’s hard to talk about fair conditions even when it comes to expensive, high-fashion labels,” Franko claims, describing this photo of Romanian garment workers. “The state of the garment factories in Romania is much better compared to most Asian and African countries, but wages are still extremely low, not exceeding 200 euros a month, which is worse than in China. And this is the EU!”
Although the fashion industry has been stagnating trend-wise recently, which has made more styles trans-seasonal, more than 80 billion pieces of clothing are purchased every year worldwide. But the low quality and purchase cost make the clothes disposable. In the US alone, more than 15 million tons of used textile waste is generated annually.
“The history of cotton is indeed a dark one, and in my eyes, the issues surrounding the cotton trade have never ended,” states Franko. Although much has been written and spoken about the invisible and destructive line of the clothing industry, customers seem to be immune: “I guess it’s easier to turn a blind eye to it. Those issues are structural, and don’t have to do only with garments.”