The Impact of COVID-19 on Garment Workers: Dismissals, Unpaid Wages and Union-Busting

As the COVID-19 pandemic struck the globe, the closure of retail stores meant that fashion brands cancelled thousands of orders. But whilst implementing measures to protect themselves, they left the brunt of the burden on those at the bottom of the supply chain, garment workers. The Clean Clothes Campaign estimates that garment workers across the globe are owed between £2.4 billion and £4.4 billion in unpaid wages from the first three months of the pandemic alone.

A recent report by the International Labour Organization looked at how COVID-19 has affected garment workers in Asia and the Pacific, finding that the issues go much further than unpaid wages. The report says that during the pandemic, thousands of factories have been forced to close either temporarily or permanently. This means that worker lay-offs and dismissals have been widespread. Factories that have re-opened have also seen a reduction in their workforce capacity. The report found that the average garment worker has lost out on at least two to four weeks of work and that only 3 in 5 workers have been called back to the factory.

Perhaps one of the most worrying impacts upon garment workers during this time has been the clear examples of union-busting, by brands and factories attempting to use the pandemic as an excuse to hide this. Factories supplying major fashion brands such as H&M, Mango and Primark have been using COVID-19 as a cover to crack down on trade unions, infringing on worker’s rights.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Garment Workers

A report by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre titled “Union Busting and Unfair Dismissals: Garment Workers During COVID-19” has exposed the discrimination of unionised workers during this time. The report found that more than 4,870 unionised garment workers have been targeted for dismissal by nine factories supplying for major fashion brands. Whilst the suppliers have claimed that reduced orders and the economic impact of COVID-19 are the reasons for the mass dismissals, the report found that workers with trade union membership have been disproportionately targeted.

On March 28th all 520 members of the factory union were dismissed from Myan Mode garment factory in Myanmar just hours after union representatives requested increased protections for workers against the risk of COVID-19 infection.

Maung Moe, the factory union President, said: “The bosses used COVID as an opportunity to get rid of us because they hated our union. They thought we caused them constant headaches by fighting for our rights and those of our fellow workers.”

In May the Rui-Ning factory in Myanmar laid off 324 workers, 298 of whom were union members. The factory claimed that COVID-19 was the reason for the dismissals, but union leaders have since reported that the factory has hired new workers that are not affiliated with a union.

In June Euro Clothing Company II (ECC-2) in Karnataka, India, laid off all its 1,200 garment workers, citing a decrease in orders for the dismissals. The factory, which largely produces clothing for H&M, is owned by Gokaldas. Gokaldas also owns 20 other garment factories in Karnataka. However, this factory was the only one that they closed. The President of the Karnataka-based Garment and Textile Worker Union alleges that the factory was targeted for a reason, saying: “The factory management shut this one down only because it was unionised. No other units of this supplier have unions.”

These are just a few examples of the way that trade union members in the garment industry have been discriminated against during the pandemic, the problem is far more widespread than just these few cases as brands refuse to take responsibility for the rights of their overseas workers.

Another worrying trend that can be spotted when examining the impact that the pandemic has had on the garment industry is the disproportionate effect that it has had on women. In Asia and the Pacific, the garment industry employs more than 5% of all women workers, making the industry the largest employer of women among all industrial sectors in the region and Labour Behind the Label report that over 80% of garment workers are female. Prior to the pandemic, women were already more likely to be exposed to exploitative labour within the garment industry, but a report from the International Labour Organisation has found that their treatment during the pandemic has further exacerbated the inequalities that female garment workers already faced, which includes a heavier workload, occupational segregation, and unequal distribution of unpaid care work and earnings.

Of the brands involved in the mistreatment of garment workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all of them have policies and global framework agreements that have been put in place to specifically protect the rights of garment workers. This may seem encouraging, but the pandemic has exposed massive gaps between policy commitments and the actual realities that garment workers face. It’s not enough for brands to give out false promises of ethical practices and equal protection. Now, they must act on those words.

Reanna Smith is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service, a team of lawyers offering advice and assistance to foreign workers and their employers