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The impact of Covid-19 on Asian garment workers

By Don-Alvin Adegeest

22 Oct 2020

All sectors of the fashion industry have been hit by the coronavirus pandemic, but on a global scale none has felt the impact as hard as garment workers in Asia.

New research from the International Labour Organization (ILO) assessed the impact of the crisis on supply chains, factories and workers in 10 major garment-producing countries in Asia, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Viet Nam.

Orders dropped by 70 percent in the first half of 2020

The research highlights that major buying countries’ imports from garment-exporting countries in Asia dropped by up to 70 per cent in the first half of 2020, due to collapsing consumer demand, government lockdown measures, and disruptions to raw material imports necessary for garment production.

As of September 2020, almost half of all jobs in garment supply chains were dependent on demand for garments from consumers living in countries with the most stringent lockdown measures in place, where retail sales have plummeted. The Asia-Pacific region employed an estimated 65 million garment sector workers in 2019, accounting for 75 per cent of all garment workers worldwide.

Working together to address unprecedented conditions

Speaking about the findings, Ms Chihoko Asada Miyakawa, ILO Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific said, “This research highlights the massive impact COVID-19 has had on the garment industry at every level. 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 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 co-workers called back to the factory when it reopened.

>Christian Viegelahn, Labour Economist, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Although governments in the region have responded proactively to the crisis, the research reveals the closure of thousands of factories across the region, either temporarily or indefinitely. Worker layoffs and dismissals have increased sharply, while factories that have reopened are often operating at reduced workforce capacity.

In addition, the research identifies how women, who make up the majority of the workers, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, exacerbating existing inequalities in earnings, workload, occupational segregation, and distribution of unpaid care work.

Although the garment sector in Asia is generally marked by low levels of collective bargaining at both sector and factory level, the research notes that social dialogue appears to have helped strengthen crisis responses in countries where dialogue mechanisms are in place. The brief calls for more inclusive and meaningful social dialogue at national and sectoral levels in countries across the region.

Click here to read the research: “The supply chain ripple effect: How COVID-19 is affecting garment workers and factories in Asia and the Pacific”

Article and image via ILO; photo © Fahad Abdullah Kaizer / UN Women.