The global pandemic meant the Bangladesh garment industry was hit by the closure of markets, suspended shipments, delayed payments and pay cuts, a new report has found, which offers recommendations for brands, unions and the government going forward.
‘The Weakest Link in the Supply Chain – How the Pandemic is Affecting Bangladesh’s Garment Workers’, prepared by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California Berkeley, claims Bangladeshi workers suffered an effective 35% pay cut during the lockdown month.
Many Bangladeshi factories supplying to international brands consolidated their businesses and some went under. Many thousands of workers lost jobs and depleted their savings without having a safety net to fall back on, the report claims.
The government imposed lockdown like many other countries, during which the statutory pay for furloughed workers was reduced by nearly a third, making workers already living close to poverty even more vulnerable, the report explains.
International brands sent health and safety guidance on responding to the pandemic to their suppliers, drawing on standards developed by international agencies. They also engaged stakeholders and suppliers in dialogue after the initial shock wore off. But many brands either delayed payments, suspended orders, or, in a few instances, invoked force majeure, a legal provision by which they could cancel the contract
Suppliers redesigned factories, provided personal protection equipment such as masks and gloves as well as sanitisers, measured temperature, provided washing facilities, and made medical facilities available.
“The pandemic has led to consolidation of brands and suppliers, and the industry in the future may have even fewer suppliers in partnership with global brands. Standards must improve and performance must be monitored and reported in a transparent manner,” report authors say.
“If we want to reverse pernicious trends that have offset much of the pre-Covid progress made in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, we must commit ourselves to tackling the crisis head-on, and to do so together,” says Sudipto Mukerjee, resident representative of UNDP Bangladesh, a contributor to the report. “We must recognise the pandemic as a watershed moment that requires states and businesses to change their modus operandi, to forge a new normal economy where growth and respect for human rights go hand in hand. UNDP is committed to working together with all stakeholders to ensure that we chart a course towards a much brighter future under collective actions to promote and protect human rights.”
The report offers a number of recommendations to key actors:
- The Bangladesh government should strengthen social protection mechanisms, including health benefits and social security net, and provide resources through well-designed furlough regulations so that workers’ wages are not reduced during a crisis. It should not reduce the minimum of what are already low wages and ensure that workers receive a living wage. It should also enable trade unions to function without restrictions.
- Brands should ensure that their actions do not squeeze their suppliers. They should use their resources and leverage to ensure liquidity for the suppliers. They should oversee or supervise the factories so that international standards are met. They should also avoid cancelling contracts, and where they must, they should pay for raw materials already acquired and work already undertaken.
- Suppliers, who bear direct responsibility for the well-being of the workers, should provide for the necessary infrastructure to ensure safe working conditions, and adhere to the disbursement wages as required by local laws.
- Local unions and labour rights advocates should remain vigilant about the adherence to standards and work with their members to ensure that they comply with the new standards and minimise disruption.
- International organisations should consider new initiatives in three areas: one, those that empower workers; two, which enable suppliers to cooperate so that they can collaborate and negotiate as equal partners with major brands; and three, which facilitate dialogue between brands and local unions. They should also explore the replicability of such ideas in other countries. Ultimately, the burden of future crises should not fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable link in this chain – the workers.
- Consumers should inform themselves about work conditions at factories where their clothes are made and support more businesses that pay a living wage, ensure that factories in their supply chain adhere to international standards. In addition to shopping more mindfully, consumers can support campaigns for dedicated funds to contribute directly to the pension, social security, and health and safety of the workers.
Click here to access the full report.