Garment workers

Pakistan Still Assessing Cotton Damage, Road of Recovery Ahead

Pakistan Still Assessing Cotton Damage, Road of Recovery Ahead

Pakistan is underwater, and fashion’s relief efforts are only but trickling in as the losses are surveyed.
But Pakistan remains at a standstill in assessing the losses and damages that have taken lives and livelihoods.

Since record rainfall hit Pakistan in mid-June, at least 1,100 people have died amid the flooding, partly induced by glacial melting and unprecedented rainfall amid the usual monsoon season. With the latest climate-induced disaster, the United Nations said damages have affected at least 33 million people (or one-third of the country), destroying a million homes and leaving many stranded in its wake. In a video message shared Aug. 30, the United Nations secretary general António Guterres called for $160 million in aid to appease the “monsoon on steroids” that Pakistan is faced with.

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And fashion can’t just turn a blind eye.

“The monsoon in Pakistan is not an isolated case — it is for everyone to consider,” Ebru Debbag, executive director of global sales and marketing at Soorty, told WWD. “I feel frustrated that the transformation in our industry is taking far too long and that we are not yet seeing true cause and effect of global actions. I feel a deep urge to alert all global citizens that we are all in this together and need to act together. It is not enough to be solely upset about what has happened — although it is devastating — but we need to act…All of us and right now.” 

Though Debbag said it is too early to assess the true impact of the monsoon on the cotton and the textile sector, he said there will surely be multiple consequences. “What happens in the cotton fields in Pakistan will emerge in fashion stores in Europe or the U.S.” Debbag said the global fashion industry needs to treat Pakistan — one of the top five cotton-growing countries in the world — as an inherent expansion of its existence and “cocreate longer-term alliances.”

Calculating Cotton Losses

In Pakistan, the majority of cotton (a main economic driver) is grown in two regions: Punjab and Sindh. According to the Cotton Crop Assessment Committee, local crop output during the 2021 to 2022 crop season was forecast at 9.37 million bales (with 5.44 million bales for Punjab, which is the main growing region, and 3.5 million bales for Sindh). 

The country’s minister for planning, Ahsan Iqbal, estimated at least 45 percent of cotton crops were destroyed, but cotton growers and ginners are still surveying the damage and fear inaccuracies, which lead to price speculation.

“What happens is most of the damage is along the belt where some of the crops are, some can be salvaged, that is to the extent of the cotton crop,” Munir Mashooqullah, founder of M5 Groupe, one of the largest global apparel suppliers, which includes Synergies Worldwide, told WWD. He warned against incorrect figures and said on-the-ground assessments as of Thursday showed less devastation in the southern region of Punjab compared to Sindh (as satellite images also confirm). Comparable past floods in Pakistan’s Sindh region have chalked up anywhere from 2 million to 2.2 million cotton bales destroyed (or roughly 24 percent less than the current estimated output), per 2011 figures from the Cotton Brokers Association, though this latest monsoon-worsened situation is unprecedented. 

Pakistan bolsters programs like the Better Cotton Initiative. Better Cotton counts hundreds of thousands of licensed farmers in Pakistan, which is the program’s second-largest sourcing partner. Though the cotton organization reported initial losses to the media, the organization retracted earlier inaccurate estimates and told WWD it is still “in the process of gathering feedback from our field staff about the impact” and will share information with stakeholders in the coming weeks. Better Cotton offered words of solidarity to those impacted in the flooding and said it is providing on-the-ground humanitarian support through its Programme Partners.

Reconfiguring Relief for Garment, Textile Workforce

Relief can’t come soon enough, and fashion workers’ rights groups are organizing.

Organizations like the Labor Education Foundation, together with industry watchdog Remake, are raising funds to provide immediate relief to those affected, but garment workers are already facing compounding inequities. 

“At the moment, this is a relief phase where we are trying to rescue people and [address] their needs for food and shelter,” said Khalid Mahmood, director of the Labor Education Foundation. In many cases, people have left flooded areas and are housed in tents. Mahmood stressed their immediate need for medical care to treat developing skin allergies and ward off mosquitoes. Because of the situation, he said, “Yarn will become more expensive. The garment factories will face more difficulty. The effect of that will be directly imposed on workers. Job safety is not [secured] here, although the labor laws talk about ‘secure jobs’ for workers. The workers are going to lose jobs if the employers are facing these kinds of problems, having to import cotton and not having enough orders.” 

Though immediate relief efforts are the priority, Mahmood stressed the need for long-term planning amid an estimated 40 percent price hike due to inflation in Pakistan, including alternative livelihoods for agricultural workers and living wages as a backbone of equitable work. He underscored that living wages are a responsibility for fashion brands contracting in Pakistan, of which there are many.

Nasir Mansoor, general secretary at the National Trade Union in Pakistan (one of the country’s most visible unions wherein very few garment workers are unionized), described how inflation matters across trade. “We have a food crisis, a textile crisis and a cotton crisis. We have to open our borders. We are not only saying that for cotton and our rice, but for daily use items. There is a more than 50 percent price increase in daily use items — potato, chicken. People can’t buy that.” 

Mansoor pointed it back to fashion’s global responsibility, highlighting the growing dissastisfaction among young workers. “Brands are not sympathetic to the workers, they are only thinking about the quality of the merchandise and the timing. They don’t care about what is happening to the workplace. The anger of the workers is growing and growing. In Pakistan, 80 percent of workers are less than 35 years old.”

Amid the ongoing fight for worker justice, Mansoor left a few words of hope. “We are very much optimistic, but we have to tell our friends and comrades the material conditions that exist.”

“We’re in a Very Grave Situation”: How The Pandemic Has Affected Garment Workers Around The World

“We’re in a Very Grave Situation”: How The Pandemic Has Affected Garment Workers Around The World

Photo: Getty
Since the pandemic hit, millions of garment workers around the world have been left in utterly desperate situations, unable to pay for basic needs such as food and rent. Thousands have lost their jobs or seen dramatic reductions in their wages, as major brands in the US and Europe cancelled or refused to pay for an estimated $16.2bn worth of orders from April to June 2020 alone.  
“It’s been massively concerning that brands are turning their backs on the supply chain, which they have profited from for decades,” Christie Miedema, campaign and outreach co-ordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, a global network working to improve conditions in the garment industry, tells Vogue. “It’s unfathomable that people who are already living on a poverty wage, and have never had a chance to save any money, don’t have anything to fall back on.” 
Shockingly, a report published by the Worker Rights Consortium in November 2020 found that nearlyg 80 per cent of garment workers surveyed have been going hungry. Working conditions have deteriorated rapidly as both factories, and in turn employees, are under increasing pressure to produce garments more quickly due to price cuts from retailers. There have been widespread reports of ‘union busting’ with union members and labour activists targeted disproportionately by lay-offs.  
The pandemic has also left female garment workers — who make up around 85 per cent of the industry — at a greater risk of violence and sexual harassment. In India, 20-year-old garment worker Jeyasre Kathiravel was allegedly raped and killed by her supervisor at an H&M supply factory after months of harassment. H&M said it has launched an independent investigation into her death, which will be conducted by the Worker Rights Consortium, and added: “H&M Group is taking this situation incredibly seriously, and recognise that we have responsibility to ensure workers are safe throughout our supply chain. We are continuing to work with the relevant trade union to find the best way forward.” 
Campaigners are now demanding that brands not only #PayUp for their orders, but take responsibility for their supply chains. This includes ensuring garment workers are paid a living wage and have safe working conditions, as well as advocating for laws that will protect workers. 
“A lot of brands simply don’t consider the people who make their products their workers,” says Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of nonprofit Remake, one of the organisations behind the #PayUp campaign. “The pandemic has exacerbated a lot of glaring problems that exist in the fashion system — this needs to be a turning point.” 
We spoke to garment workers in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Ethiopia and the US to find out more about how the pandemic has affected their lives. 
Sadiya*, 25, Dhaka, Bangladesh 
“I’d been working in the same garment factory for more than five years before I got laid off. After Covid-19 hit, the factory closed in April and I lost my job as a quality inspector. My husband, who also worked at the factory, also lost his job at the same time.
“It’s been really difficult because both of our families depend on us for income. I didn’t get my full severance pay and had to take out a loan of 40,000 taka (£339). We were renting a house before, but we’ve had to move as we could no longer afford the rent. We can pay for basic food, but don’t have meat with our meals any more and we can’t afford the medicine we need. 
“My husband managed to find a new job two-and-a-half months ago, but now our total income is only 10 to 12,000 taka (£85 to £100) a month, whereas before Covid-19, it was 20 to 22,000 taka (£170 to £185). We can only send our family half the amount we were sending them before. I’m really worried about repaying the loan I took out, as if I can’t repay it, the interest rate will get higher and higher. 
“It’s been almost a year since I got laid off and I still can’t find work. When I go to factories, they say we don’t have the orders right now, so we can’t hire you.” 
Photo: Courtesy of Roberto Westbrook
Hosana, 24, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 
“I’ve been working for five-and-a-half years at the same garment factory. Since the pandemic began, our wages have been reduced — we haven’t been told why. It was 1,600 Ethiopian birr (£28) a month before, and now it’s 1,400 (£25). Because of this, I’ve had to ask my parents for help for food and other expenses as these wages only cover my rent. 
“There have been a lot of orders coming through so we’ve had to work a lot of overtime, but we haven’t been paid for it. One person is given a two-person job to do and when we can’t manage to do that job, the bosses yell at us to work faster and insult us. They push us around sometimes and if we complain about the work pressure, they tell us to leave if we don’t want to work there any more.
“I just hope things get better. We are doing difficult work and given the cost of living, we should be compensated accordingly.” 
Mangala, 42, Colombo, Sri Lanka
“Due to Covid-19, we’re no longer getting paid bonuses and overtime because there are fewer orders. Before, I did a lot of overtime so I would earn about 50,000 Sri Lankan rupees (£182) a month, but now I’m not even getting half that. The original factory I worked at closed down and I’ve been transferred to another branch of the same company, which is really far from where I live.
“Before the pandemic, we ate three meals a day but now I only eat one meal a day. We used to have good, balanced meals but now it’s just whatever we can get. I used to support my brothers — for example, buying them books for school — but now I feel really sad that I can’t support them. 
“We’re in a very grave situation. We fear we may lose our jobs — I not only worry for myself, but all 4,500 employees at my factory who might lose their jobs. Seventy-five per cent of us are women, and many are married and have children. As the president of the union branch, I have been harassed for speaking out for other garment workers. Companies are also finding strategic ways to lay off union activists first — it’s already happened in some other factories. 
“Factory owners have already squeezed our sweat; they have taken the maximum from us. Brands are still making profits during this pandemic. They need to make sure that workers are being treated better and help secure their jobs.” 
Chenda, 36, Phnom Penh, Cambodia 
“In May 2020, the factory suspended our employment for two months. At the end of June, we were told that because of the impact of Covid-19, the factory was closing and were told to go and get our severance pay.  
“We were then told we weren’t going to get our full severance pay. People who had worked at the factory for a long time, like me — I’d been there 11 years — only received a little of what we should have. We felt really upset and hopeless. 
“I look after my two younger brothers who are still studying and pay for their school fees. I struggled to find work after being laid off, so had no other choice but to ask my mother to help me with rent and daily expenses. My mother had to borrow money from the bank, and then find work to pay it back.
“I’ve got some work now, but it’s not regular — only hourly work in factories when they are busy. For a 10 hour day I make around $10 (£7), so about $1 (70p) an hour. Before, my base salary was $190 (£136), which is the minimum wage for the garment sector in Cambodia. But because I was a piece rate worker, if I worked a lot of overtime, sometimes I could earn as much as $450 to $500 (£323 to £359) per month. Now, it’s a maximum of maybe $200 (£143) per month.
“Working conditions are difficult — much more than before. The factory is in a hurry to do the work so I can only really go to the toilet during my lunch break. They always say we’re busy and, if we don’t get enough done, they could fire us.
“I hope the brands I used to produce clothes for will help me and other garment workers because they received a lot of profit from the work we did — we put all of our energy into it. Now, the factory is closed, we’re all in a very difficult situation.” 
Maria, 64, Los Angeles, US
“I’ve been working in the garment industry for 40 years, since arriving in the US from Mexico. I caught Covid-19 in October and I’m still sick. My company shut down shortly after I got ill, and I’ve not been able to find any other work as I’m still affected by Covid. I’m undocumented, so that also makes it hard for me to get a job.
“I don’t have any income or access to sick pay. I was able to use emergency relief from [LA workers’ rights organisation] the Garment Worker Center to help pay my rent, and I’ve  had to borrow money from people to pay my bills. I’ve also had to get food from distribution centres.
“Since the pandemic began, I was really scared of getting Covid as I take care of my elderly mother, and I’m the only one who works. But when I got sick, my mother took care of me. I’m not sure how I got Covid, but I used public transport to get to and from work, so it could have been from that.
“Even when I was working, I was paid much less because I’m undocumented. I was paid by a piece rate, which is equivalent to less than minimum wage. I used to make $400 to $450 (£287 to £323) a week, working almost 60 hours a week. That’s less than half the city’s minimum wage. I also had no sick pay, no vacation pay, no rights. 
“A lot of companies have shut down either because of Covid outbreaks or because they’re not getting enough orders. There’s a lot of unemployment at the moment.” 
*Some names have been changed. Images are used for illustrative purposes only.
Read Next: What Do the Technological Advances in Fashion Mean for Garment Workers?
Originally published on Vogue.co.uk

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