The following post is in collaboration with Nomi Network — a nonprofit working towards a slavery-free world where every woman can live up to her full potential.
When we contemplate the frontliners of COVID-19, we typically list the doctors, nurses, bus drivers, or even our pizza delivery person. But we often overlook the garment workers making the masks we wear every day.
After COVID-19 dried up the apparel market, millions of garment workers have faced the economic brunt of fashion’s supply chain shutdown. In response to the low market demand, big-name retailers have hastily canceled both completed and in-progress orders with their manufacturers. Some brands have even refused to pay for orders that were shipped out pre-COVID.
As a result, manufacturers were unable to pay their employees for work leading up to the shutdown, and many had to let their garment workers go, often with no advance notice and no severance pay.
In an industry of 75 percent female workers, this economic toll only widens the financial disparity between women and our male counterparts.
Maribelia Quiroz, an LA-based garment worker, stated:
“Since COVID-19, I have been stuck at home, feeling desperate with anxiety. There has been work in my factory, but I’m afraid to go because it’s all [paid] under the table, and people are working without six-foot distancing. The pay is the same as before the pandemic: 12-hour days, $280 a week.”
But for female garment workers living in manufacturing hubs with fragile economic infrastructures like Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Cambodia—one missed paycheck can determine whether or not they can send each of their children to a school that month. Even if this woman is married to a working husband, one income usually isn’t enough to support the average 4-5 member household in Southeast Asia.
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In Cambodia, where we fight human trafficking through economic capacity-building and fashion skills training, more than 150,000 garment workers have lost their jobs. Sophen, a home-based Cambodian tailor who works for one of our fair-trade production partners, says that losing her income has put her and her six-member family in a vulnerable financial crisis. Her husband’s construction worker salary alone is not enough to cover all of their food, medical, and utility expenses. And when she needs formula for her daughter, she has to ask her other relatives for the money. Sophen’s biggest concern is that she has no savings for unexpected medical emergencies, especially for her baby and her parents, who would be most prone to infection if the virus were to pick up more rapidly.
Sreymom is another fair-trade artisan in our network. She told us that while her employer covers up to 50% of her monthly salary, she cannot afford her increasing financial needs. While she’s thankful she can cover her rent and daily expenses; she has nothing left over. Sreymom is unmarried but lives with her aging aunt, whom she can barely support now. Sreymom also has a physical ailment and is unable to afford her medical treatments. She tells us that while she is hopeful for the future, she doesn’t expect to get back to work until early September, as her boss promised. She is still unsure how she will cover her expenses between now and September, and she feels unprepared for an emergency. While COVID-19 cases remain low in Cambodia, Sreymom still practices social distancing by staying home and seeking other creative ways to generate the income she needs.
Sophen and Sreymom are in difficult situations, but since they work for well-vetted, fair-trade certified manufacturers in our network, we’re aware that their circumstances are better than most. In recent months, thousands of women have protested outside their employers’ offices, demanding their last wages and severance checks. These women would be lucky to receive 50 percent of their monthly wages that Sreymom gets from her employer.
When a woman living in Cambodia—a country ranked third in the world for human trafficking—suddenly loses her job, she is forced to seek immediate, alternative forms of employment. While financially necessary, this makes her and even her children more susceptible to traffickers’ deceptive lures of “stable” or “high-paying” jobs.
When retailers neglect their contract terms with their suppliers, especially suppliers in economically fragile, developing countries, they aren’t considering the ripple effect of their actions. And they are so far removed from the realities of these economies that they either don’t see or care how their actions push millions of Southeast Asian women deeper into poverty and at higher risk of labor exploitation.
Retailers’ indifference towards their supply chain is nothing new. It’s just one of the many forms of negligence that garment workers face.
Year after year, Southeast Asia’s garment hubs rank highly for “extreme risk of forced labor, occupational health and safety, and child labor.” Human rights violations in Cambodia’s workforce have remained so intact that the EU has withdrawn part of its tariff preferences under the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme. While the EU’s stance is noble, withdrawing tariff preferences hurt garment workers even more. As Cambodian export costs increase, Cambodian manufacturers will have a harder time sustaining their international retail clients. And when client orders decrease, so does the manufacturers’ capacity to provide stable jobs. The NACC has already predicted that the loss of trade access will result in 43 percent of Cambodian garment workers and 20 percent of footwear workers losing their jobs.
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So what’s the solution?
Since March, thousands of garment workers have protested demanding wages from their final pay periods, but manufacturers have refused, blaming the retailer clients who canceled their orders.
In April, the Cambodian government proposed that brands and manufacturers would contribute 40 percent of the minimum wage ($114/mo) for suspended workers, while the state contributes another 20 percent, but this promise was never kept. After it became apparent that manufacturers wouldn’t uphold their end of the bargain, the government issued $70/mo to laid-off workers instead of the original “40/20-percent” proposal.
The $70/mo allowance is 37 percent less than the current minimum wage.
[Read Related: The $1 in My Pocket: Let’s Talk About Socioeconomic Diversity]
On a lighter note, COVID-19’s impact has spurred a great deal of media coverage for workers’ rights. International grassroots labor advocacy groups like Clean Clothes Campaign and Fashion Revolution are spreading needed awareness of the recent labor rights violations, pressuring major retailers to uphold contract terms with their manufacturers. Hundreds of institutional investors have urged companies to maintain respectable supplier relationships and make timely payments. Also, petitions like Change.org’s #PayUp campaign are demanding that retailers promise to pay suppliers for all orders that were canceled or paused as a result of the coronavirus.
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As part of our COVID-19 response, we are fundraising to distribute grants to our fair-trade manufacturing partners in Cambodia, helping them provide stimulus checks to their employees—many who are either survivors or women at high risk. Partial funding will also provide direct relief to their employees—covering food, rent, and baby formula expenses.
But as an NGO who strives for holistic transformation and lasting systemic change, it’s hard not to get discouraged and label these efforts, and even our own COVID-19 response as short-term “band-aid” solutions to a seemingly larger than life issue.
While #Payup petitions and strikes are needed and necessary, the reality is—it will take years for all brands to value their ethics as much as their profits. While the slow fashion and fair-trade movements have taken massive strides, a large portion of the industry still utilizes cheap, unethical labor sources.
And while Cambodia’s limits on governmental aid seem negligent, the government relies heavily on two major industries for tax income—textiles and tourism—both of whom have taken substantial hits from COVID-19. The World Bank estimates that Cambodia’s poverty rates could increase “anywhere between 3 to 11 percent among households involved in key sectors like manufacturing and the garment industry.” The persistent strikes can keep the issue at the forefront of government officials’ minds, but the government’s capacity to provide adequate relief still lacks.
It feels morally wrong to watch millions of female workers remain reliant on fragile economic infrastructures and flawed money-hungry industries that haven’t served them historically.
But just like the fall of the Khmer Rouge, our current BLM movement, and every other lasting systemic shift, real change takes a two-pronged approach, combining short-term and long-term solutions.
For the last five years, we’ve fought human trafficking systemically by supporting fair-trade businesses in Phnom Penh’s burgeoning fashion sector. In addition to supporting production with sales through the NOMI brand, we also encourage global brands to support ethical supply chains by placing wholesale orders through our network. Our investment in Cambodian manufacturers helps them expand their workforce capacity and provide more safe, stable, and distinguished jobs to trafficking survivors and women at risk.
But the post-COVID reality has pushed us to more rapid, innovative program restructuring.
[Read Related: Essential Skincare for Essential Workers: Quick Tips in the Time of COVID-19]
At our NIFT (Nomi International Fashion Training) school in Phnom Penh, we have added training in savings, client servicing, and budgeting to our class schedule. We are also hosting virtual forums where manufacturers can strategize post-COVID business solutions with one another. As we continue our online fashion training courses, our teaching staff is available to consult local designers and producers as they navigate the current economic uncertainty.
As we prepare to launch our new program in Poipet, we are integrating our Nomi Network Fashion Incubator (NNFI) job creation experience with the trauma-informed, economic empowerment program that we employ in India.
As we expand and reach more marginalized women in Cambodia, we will support them with job skills training and connections to ethical, fair-trade employers. But beyond that, we will help them foster financial literacy, entrepreneurial savvy, and self-agency needed to reach financial independence and rewrite narratives for themselves and future generations.
While cultivating financial literacy and access to fair-trade jobs won’t resolve a global supply chain slowdown or decades of economic instability, it plays an essential role in this collective fight.
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We believe it’s okay to admit that we don’t have all the answers. But somewhere between the spikes of conscious consumerism, tenacious protesting, and progressive philanthropic solutions, we can fight this fight together—advocating for women around the world who have faced the brunt of the supply chain’s shortcomings for far too long.
Nomi Network’s vision is to see a world without slavery, where every woman can know her full potential. You can learn more about our mission and donate to our Cambodia Relief Fund here.