Sabina Lawreniuk, University of Nottingham, Katherine Brickell, Royal Holloway, University of London, & Lauren McCarthy, Bayes Business School
This Black Friday weekend, UK consumers are expected to spend almost £9 billion, much of it in clothing and footwear stores. Unfortunately, we can’t be confident that the fashion brands we give so much of our money to have treated the workers who make our clothes and shoes fairly.
In 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and shoppers were stuck at home, clothing sales in the UK fell by 25%: the biggest drop on record. Global retailers responded by cancelling US$40 billion worth of orders with their factory suppliers, mostly located in developing countries. In many cases, they refused to pay for good in production or goods that were already made, waiting to ship in ports. UK high street stores were among the worst offenders.
The effects of this disruption were devastating for the workers who usually cut and stitch the world’s supply of clothing and shoes. In Cambodia, for example, there are nearly 1 million garment workers, working in more than 1000 factories. Most – around 80% – of these workers are women. As orders stalled, production lines ground to a halt, and many were forced out of work. By May 2020, already up to a third of garment workers in Cambodia had been laid off or suspended.
With little support offered to help workers cope through any period of unemployment, reports of rising hunger and debt became commonplace, not just in Cambodia but for garment workers around the world.
Our own study in Cambodia found that, by the end of the first year of the pandemic, the average worker had lost 25% of their anticipated annual income. As a result, 55% of workers were in a state of acute food insecurity, eating less than they thought was healthy. More alarmingly, 20% reported episodes of hunger, where they did not eat because of a lack of money or other resources for food.
One of our participants, Leakhena, had worked at her factory for almost twenty years before she was dismissed, with just a week’s notice. “If there is no factory, there is no money for us”, she surmised. “The factory is like our pot of rice”.
These early, calamitous impacts of the Covid crisis were heralded as a “wake-up call” for the fashion industry and prompted lofty commitments from stakeholders to “Build Back Better” after the pandemic. The International Labour Organisation, for example, spearheaded a Global Call for Action to deliver a “human-centred recovery from the COVID-19 crisis that is inclusive, sustainable and resilient”, promising to address long-standing concerns about labour rights and working conditions in global supply chains.
Now more several years into the pandemic, however, these promises have yet to be realised. Instead, as our new report shows, the challenges faced by workers in Cambodia have deepened, as the pandemic has created new avenues for exploitation.
“I thought that I faced difficulty due to COVID-19 and that things might get better after the COVID-19 outbreak was over”, Pheakdei, another worker, confided to us. “But that has not happened because the factory conditions have become stricter”.
Many suppliers, for instance, have sought to offset their economic losses by increasing production targets, squeezing higher output from a shrinking workforce. Before Covid-19, Pheakdei was expected to sew 500-700 items each day. Now her daily target has been stretched to 1000 pieces.
Because of their precarious financial situation after months of reduced earning capacity, many women like Pheakdei now lack confidence to push back against these and other abuses. “Before, my factory usually received a lot of complaints”, Chenda explained. “But since COVID-19, not really… Because people are afraid of losing their jobs or getting fired… Before, the factory was afraid of the workers but not now. Now, the factory always has the upper hand”.
Their struggles are heightened by a renewed wave of trade union repression that has taken place throughout the pandemic. Under the pretext of “downsizing” or “streamlining” due to reduced order demand, employers have routinely targeted union leaders and activists in layoffs and suspensions, releasing them from work as short-term contracts expired and not recalling them even as their colleagues returned to the factory.
More sinister in Cambodia are the government’s attempts to weaponize public health legislation to prevent strikes, demonstrations, and protests. The UN special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia notes 700 people have been subjected to “arbitrary arrest” under the “broad and vague” provisions of the Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19.
The outlook for the labour movement in Cambodia’s garment sector therefore feels bleak. “COVID-19 has brought unions very big challenges in terms of union power and organising” the leader of one independent trade union federation detailed. “The setbacks have made workers scared and they don’t want to talk. Before COVID-19, we spent nearly 15 years to bring them to understand their rights and collective power, so it’s a significant impact to lose that momentum… It’s set us back ten years”.
With a demoralised workforce and weakened labour movement, the government has “short-changed” workers with a “paltry” pay increase of just US$2 per month for the past two years, citing a drive to promote industrial recovery. It takes the monthly minimum wage to US$194 in 2022, equivalent to less than £6 per day.
With inflation at nearly 8% as of June 2022, driven by international energy and commodity price spikes to a record 13-year high, these token offerings amount to a real terms wage cut. Inflationary pressures are exerting a familiar cost-of-living squeeze on garment worker’s households, already struggling with depleted savings and deepening debt burdens, creating a sustained collapse in their standards of living post-pandemic.
Kunthea, another garment worker, offered a grave assessment of the situation. “The price of goods in the market and gasoline are significantly rising, and if you look at the workers, 99% of the workers in Cambodia are in debt. We only got a US$2 raise in a year… If I can talk freely – and I am afraid that if I talk freely, I will be punished – but I want the government to reconsider… If this continues, and the government does not solve the prices in the market, then even 100 years later, we will not improve at all. We will still be in debt”.
As of October/November 2021, before inflation climbed to these record highs, already 33% of workers participating in our study were still eating less than they thought they should and 8% reported episodes within the last month where they could not eat due to a lack of money or other resources. This suggests that food insecurity and hunger will remain chronic challenges among the workforce for the foreseeable future.
Rather, than Building Back Better, therefore, our research suggests that the sector has built forward worse, accelerating the ongoing “race to the bottom” in the garment industry, as the behaviour of global brands has incentivised factory suppliers to leverage further marginal gains at the expense of workers’ economic security and resilience. The low prices of the UK’s Black Friday bargains are possible through the high costs worn by these increasingly precarious and pressurised home and working lives of these already vulnerable women.
About the authors: Sabina Lawreniuk is Nottingham Research Fellow in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham. Katherine Brickell is Professor of Human Geography at Royal Holloway University, London. Lauren McCarthy is Senior Lecturer in Corporate Social Responsibility at Bayes Business School, London.
Suggested further reading
Lawreniuk, S. (2022) Zombie resistance: Reanimated labour struggles and the legal geographies of authoritarian neoliberalism in Cambodia. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 00, 1– 17. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12564
Brickell, K. & Lawreniuk, S. (2022) Reduced ‘fates of the body’ and ‘production of value for others’ in the global garment industry: Thinking with Berlant on eating and hunger during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Geographical Journal, 188, 464– 467. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12454
Parsons, L., Safra de Campos, R., Moncaster, A., Cook, I., Siddiqui, T. & Abenayake, C. et al. (2022) Trading disaster: Containers and container thinking in the production of climate precarity. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 47, 990– 1008. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12545
You can access a series of films from this project at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCo9cSnqaGnvhkhStp4wPV9w
Sabina Lawreniuk has also recorded a podcast with the RGS-IBG Schools Team which can be accessed here: https://www.rgs.org/schools/teaching-resources/dr-sabina-lawreniuk-on-female-workers-in-the-globa/
|How to cite: Lawreniuk, S, Brickell, K, & McCarthy L (2022, 22 November) Who wears the costs of the UK’s Black Friday bonanza? Geography Directions. Available from: https://doi.org/10.55203/PZHC9493|