2020 was a year unlike any other. This report documents what happened to garment workers across Asia – in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Cambodia and Bangladesh, putting numbers to the 25 per cent or so wage losses suffered by these workers in 2020. The report argues that the wage losses were actually wage theft by the global brands for whom these workers produced garments. Before proceeding, I would like to congratulate the various researchers and trade union members across the above-mentioned countries, who have put together a cross-country study, overcoming all the constraints in carrying out research during pandemic-induced restrictions on movement and contact. Can the wage loss suffered by garment workers be called wage theft by the brands for whom they produced garments? This is an important question that is posed by the report, in the context of contract manufacturing of garments by brands — one that I will deal with in the rest of this Foreword. Garment workers covered in this study, work to produce garments for a number of brands from the Global North. But, they are not directly employed by these brands. Rather, workers are employed by suppliers in various countries of the Global South. These suppliers, however, are not independent manufacturers, having garments produced and selling them on the global market. Rather, they are contract manufacturers. They produce garments based on designs and specifications provided by the brands. This contracted production is handed over to the brands who also carry out the post-production branding and marketing of the garments. In several countries, employers engaging in labour sub-contracting are treated as principal employers of sub-contracted workers and contractors are treated as intermediaries. Similarly in global value chain (GVC) contracted production, the contracting brand should be considered the principal employer and suppliers intermediary employers. The regulation of GVCs, however, is undeveloped and brands are not held legally responsible for employment conditions in their cross-border supplier factories, as they would be in the case of foreign direct investment (FDI) based branches. If brands are the principal employers of workers in supplier factories, they should have responsibility to sustain suppliers and their workers in times of recession, just as they take various measures to support share-holder value, even carrying out share buy-backs. Brands, however, refused to take or share any responsibility for either suppliers or their workers. Instead, some of them even refused to pay suppliers for orders already delivered, a step from which they stepped back only after exposure in the international media threatened them with a loss of reputation. Refusal to pay for orders already delivered, cancellation of orders for which suppliers had purchased inputs, all such measures discussed in this report, left suppliers without cash. There was a knock-on effect, with suppliers not paying wages to workers. Labour contractors went so far as to switch off their phones in order to avoid workers asking for their dues. There are variations in these responses, as documented in this report, with permanent workers, i.e. those who are important for renewing production when orders are revived, doing a little better than contract and otherwise precariously employed workers. The main point from the above analysis is that the risks of business were basically transferred to suppliers from the Global South and, in turn, to their workers. While the owners of the suppliers would surely have been able to secure their consumption from their savings, the workers’ incomes were pushed below even the poverty line, with women workers falling even more behind the poverty line than men. In addition, women had to compensate for what was formerly purchased from the market, but could no longer be afforded, such as health services, with increasing unpaid care work. With governments of the supplier countries too doing little, again with differences between countries, workers and their families were forced to reduce consumption, deplete savings, increase debt taken on usurious rates of interest, and increase unpaid care work just to stay alive – in order to be able to return to work when the brands from the Global North once again required their labour. Wages are meant to cover keeping a worker able to work and for children to go to school, etc. i.e. to cover the costs of social reproduction of labour power. A living wage, as advocated by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) is meant to cover just this cost of social reproduction incurred even when the worker is not at work, but costs that are necessary for them to recuperate in order to return to work. The brands, however, refused to cover the cost of social reproduction of labour power in their contracted factories. I stress contracted factories since they are not what may be called own-account enterprises, buying their inputs and selling their outputs on the market. Rather, what supplier factories and their workers do is to handover production carried out with given designs and specifications, in exchange for the contracted payment. It is this contract nature of the relationship between brands and their supplier factories that makes the brands, and not just the suppliers, liable for meeting the costs of social reproduction of workers. This, in turn, turns the wage loss incurred by garment workers into wage theft by brands from the Global North; wage theft carried out in order to shore up their share values. They sacrificed workers from the Global South to protect their share value in the Global North. Even with all the excesses of brands (e.g. non-payment for orders already delivered) suppliers and their workers have no alternative but to remain available when the orders are revived. That is the reality of Global monopsony capitalism, where myriad suppliers and their workers from the South, in a condition of overall labour surplus, face a few brands (including mass retailers) from the Global North. Of course, there are also a few emerging brands, most from China and also a few from India, that are likely to have acted in such a manner. That only shows that one must pay attention to new emerging forces in global monopsony capitalism, but it does not alter the basic picture of the burden of the current global recession in garment production having been pushed onto suppliers and workers from the Global South. The certainty that suppliers and workers in the Global South will be there, even if with somewhat weakened bodies, when the brands require them – this is what underlies the behaviour of brands in carrying out wage theft in the current recession. The report by AFWA researchers and union members very carefully documents and analyses this wage theft by virtually every brand of importance from the US and EU. It deserves to be read carefully by anyone concerned about the condition of garment workers working in GVCs for brands and markets of the Global North.

Money Heist : COVID 19 Wage Theft in Global Garment Supply Chains DOWNLOAD














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