The rising wave of hunger illuminated by the survey is blamed on chronically low wages in brands’ supply chains

The rising wave of hunger illuminated by the survey is blamed on chronically low wages in brands’ supply chains

Garment workers across the supply chains of major brands and retailers are reporting growing hunger and food insecurity as a result of falling income and job losses amid the Covid-19 pandemic, a new report has found.

The global survey of garment workers was conducted by the Worker Rights Consortium, in collaboration with Professor Genevieve LeBaron of the University of Sheffield in the UK. It surveyed nearly 400 garment workers across 158 factories in nine countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Lesotho and Myanmar.

Survey respondents report being increasingly unable to obtain adequate food for their families – a crisis that most workers expect to worsen in the months ahead.

The report blames the rising wave of hunger illuminated by the survey on the chronically low wages in brands' supply chains – which left workers with no economic safety net entering the pandemic – compounded by brands' response to the crisis, including the retroactive cancellation of in-process apparel orders.

Around 77% of garment workers surveyed reported that they or a member of their household have gone hungry since the beginning of the pandemic, while 80% of those with dependent children said they are now forced to skip meals or reduce the amount or quality of food they eat in order to feed their children.

Around 75% of workers say they have borrowed money or accumulated debt in order to buy food since the beginning of the pandemic.

Widespread food insecurity

The widespread incidence of hunger revealed by the survey exists despite the fact that a majority of surveyed workers have received some degree of government assistance, indicating that resource-poor governments in apparel exporting countries were not able to protect supply chain workers from the economic ravages of the pandemic, report authors say.

"The high levels of hunger reported by workers in our survey are alarming, especially since so many of these workers are still in employment," says author Genevieve LeBaron, Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield. "Hunger and food insecurity appears already to be widespread and is growing across the supply chain."

Report co-author Penelope Kyritsis, director of strategic research at the Worker Rights Consortium, adds: "Several apparel companies cited by workers responding to the survey are owned by billionaires. These companies, and the industry as a whole, are more than financially capable of ensuring that the workers who sew their clothes are able to feed their families."

The report offers a number of recommendations. It says apparel companies carry responsibility for workers in their global supply chains and should take stock of how their responses to the pandemic are impacting suppliers and workers and take immediate action to address ongoing harms.

  • Their action should centre around ensuring that workers' income is sustained throughout the crisis via cash support, as unions and labour rights advocates around the world are urging and as apparel brands have so far failed to do.
  • Paying suppliers in full for any orders they placed before the crisis that remain unpaid, since retroactive cancellations of goods already in production have left the supply chain actors who can least afford to bear the cost of the pandemic (suppliers and workers) to do so.
  • Ensuring all legally mandated severance pay and other terminal compensation is delivered to workers who have been terminated.
  • Ending irresponsible sourcing practices, such as using suppliers' increasing desperation for orders to extract major price concessions and impose increasingly onerous payment terms.

In the medium and long term, report authors say there is a need for systemic change to address the inequalities of power and wealth within supply chains and the business models that have led to these outcomes, including:

  • The chronic failure of brands to ensure living wages for supply chain workers; uneven value distribution along supply chains; and irresponsible sourcing practices, including the practice of sourcing goods below the costs of production, paying suppliers so little that they cannot adhere to labour laws and standards.

"These dynamics have left garment workers exceedingly vulnerable to the pandemic's economic shocks and will require targeted action from policymakers, investors, and apparel companies in close collaboration with unions, workers, and their advocates to address. As a first step, brands should make an enforceable commitment to pay a price premium on apparel orders to establish a global severance guarantee fund and broaden social protection for garment workers, per a proposal advocated by a broad coalition of unions and non-governmental organisations."

Click here to view the full report.