A year on: Economic and health crises converge in Cambodia’s garment industry
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused severe disruption throughout the global garment and footwear supply chain. Rolling lockdowns in consumer markets like the UK and EU have led to a sharp drop in retail demand for clothing and shoes, as people work from home and have less opportunity to socialise.
(Image credit © Thomas Christofoletti/Ruom and ReFashion)
In the UK, clothing sales slumped by 25% in 2020, the biggest decline in 23 years since retail records began. Fearing losses, major fashion brands have responded to this contraction by cancelling contracts or reducing orders with their suppliers, in some cases refusing to settle payments for goods already made.
The effects of this disruption have been devastating for the workers who usually cut and stitch the world’s supply of clothing and shoes. As elsewhere, the impacts of the pandemic in garments and footwear manufacturing have been highly gendered, as the majority of workers in the sector are female. In Cambodia, for instance, the garment industry employs nearly 1 million people across 1000 factory sites, 80% of whom are women. Estimates suggest that in the first half of 2020 alone, up to half of all factories had been forced to halt production, either temporarily or permanently, putting hundreds of thousands of women out of work over the short- or longer-term.
Since September 2020, the ReFashion study has been conducting longitudinal research to document the experiences of over 200 female garment workers in Cambodia through the pandemic, led by a team of researchers in the UK and Cambodia. Our interim findings highlight the acute impacts of this crisis on women’s economic security and personal wellbeing. Almost 90% of our respondents describe themselves as “much worse off” (68%) or a “bit worse off” (19%) than prior to the pandemic. Although 80% of the women we spoke to had returned to work by November and December 2020, when our first round of survey interviews took place, their factories were operating at reduced capacity. The average wage had fallen by 17%, from US$240 a month in January to US$200 in October.
"ReFashion has used innovative methods to amplify workers’ concerns and bring them – sometimes literally – into conversation with public authorities and policymakers."
To make ends meet, women have been compelled to reduce expenditure on basic necessities for themselves and their families. Over half (52%) of our respondents had cut household food budgets in response to the pandemic, with the average daily spend on food dropping by almost 40%, from US$4.38 to US$2.69 per day. Hunger among workers and their families has become commonplace as a result. A fifth of our respondents could recall a time in the last month when they were hungry but did not eat because they did not have money to buy food, with more than half of those describing this as something that now occurs “often”. “I could tell you one word [to describe my situation]”, confessed Lida, one of our respondents: “hardship. I have reduced my spending on food. Some days we only have eggs for meals”.
Until recently, Cambodia’s garment workers had been at least lucky to escape the worst direct health impacts of the pandemic, residing in a country that had registered only 500 cases of Covid-19 to February 2021. Since then, however, a community outbreak of more than 4000 cases has raised anxiety among workers, whose dense working conditions on tightly packed production lines and cramped living conditions in urban informal settlements have seeded factory outbreaks in other garment-producing countries, including the UK. Although parts of the capital city, Phnom Penh, are in now lockdown as a result, with a night-time curfew imposed and travel outside the city banned, workers are still expected to turn up and clock in for their shifts.
ReFashion has used innovative methods to amplify workers’ concerns and bring them – sometimes literally – into conversation with public authorities and policymakers. Since January 2021, we have hosted a monthly phone-in radio show in collaboration with the Women’s Media Centre in Cambodia, where listeners can seek advice and share concerns with invited studio guests, including trade union leaders and government officials. In March 2021, as Covid-19 transmission began to slowly rise in Cambodia, one of our listeners phoned the programme to warn a representative from the Ministry of Labour that factory prevention efforts were insufficient to protect workers from any outbreak of the virus. Previously in our survey, only 20% of respondents were able to agree that “I have no fear of contracting the virus from co-workers”.
These warnings have gone unheeded, however. In the second week of April 2021, the first cases of Covid-19 in a garment factory in Cambodia were detected, at a site where workers had previously been making replica kits for the delayed Euro 2020 football tournament. Since then, more than 700 cases have been found across 8 nearby factory sites, repositioning the sector as an epicentre of the unfolding epidemic in Cambodia. To prevent further spread, thousands of workers at affected facilities have been made to quarantine for 14-days in makeshift camp bed dormitories in the grounds of local schools and other hastily requisitioned buildings. There are reports that some factories have sought to cut wages by 50% for workers who will miss work through this involuntary absence, contravening legal obligations.
As the pandemic’s economic and health crises converge and intensify in Cambodia, ReFashion will continue to track the impact on women worker’s livelihoods and wellbeing. By pivoting to remote methods of data collection, including telephone interviews deployed from home workspaces, we will be able to stay in touch with our respondents whilst keeping them and our research team in Cambodia safe. Working alongside our research partners the International Labour Organisation, local trade unions, as well as activist and artist groups in Cambodia, our goal is to put women’s stories collected across a year of extended engagement to long-term use in advocating for an economic recovery that prioritises workers’ interests. This includes delivering better social and health protections that will empower women in the garment sector to survive and thrive, both during and after the current emergency.
Institute for Policy and Engagement
This blog appears as part of the series from the Institute for Policy and Engagement on the university’s ongoing research contribution to the Covid-19 effort.