Zarchi Lwin pawned her only two gold bangles for US$140 when the owner of the factory in Myanmar where she sewed winter coats for British retailer Next PLC shut it down after orders dried up due to COVID-19.
She is one of hundreds of thousands of garment workers across Asia who have been laid off, according to the Workers Rights Consortium, a labor rights campaign group, and are now struggling to survive with little welfare support, mired in debt and in many cases reliant on food handouts.
“If I have a job and an income, I can pay for medical treatment for my mother,” Zarchi Lwin, 29, said.
Illustration: Mountain People
She lives with her 56-year-old mother, who has a lung disease, in a shantytown on the outskirts of Yangon.
“Now no income, no job. We don’t know what to do,” she said, fighting back tears.
Next temporarily closed all its stores in Britain in March due to COVID-19. The company said in a statement that it had only canceled some orders and “endeavored to be fair” to its suppliers.
The factory where Zarchi Lwin worked did not respond to requests for comment.
Since the 1960s, Asia has grown into the world’s garment factory, sending about US$670 billion worth of clothes, shoes and bags a year to Europe, the US and richer Asian countries, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), a UN agency.
After non-essential stores were closed in many countries and people were told to stay at home to prevent further spread of the disease, international retailers from Asos to New Look said they canceled orders with garment makers.
Factory owners in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Cambodia immediately shut down thousands of factories and sent home workers with little or no pay.
Retailers generally place orders at least three months ahead and pay for the finished product upon delivery.
Initially, most retailers canceled all outstanding orders, but many adjusted their position in March and last month after a public outcry, agreeing to pay for goods that had already been manufactured or were in production.
To finish pending orders, about half of Bangladesh’s 4,000 garment factories have reopened, according to garment manufacturer associations. About 150 of Myanmar’s estimated 600 factories have shut down, while 200 out of estimated 600 are closed in Cambodia.
Many factories that have reopened are struggling to enforce social distancing and good hygiene practices in often cramped conditions, according to union officials.
“Most of the factories are not complying with the safety guidelines,” Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation president Babul Akter said, adding that dozens of garment workers had been infected with the virus.
“Just placing hand-washing systems and checking temperatures at the entrances will not help. Inside the factories, when the workers work so closely, how will they maintain safe distancing?” Akter said.
Some orders have been trickling back. Swedish fashion retailer Hennes & Mauritz said it only paused orders for two weeks at the height of the virus outbreak.
Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, said it placed new orders with Asian manufacturers last month.
Despite the new orders, several garment manufacturers said the low volume of work on the books means many factories in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Cambodia would not be viable, which means many of the young women who make up the majority of the workforce would no longer have jobs.
That leaves them torn between returning to families in the countryside, where there are few employment opportunities, or enduring life in the city in the hope that factories would reopen at full capacity.
The EU has created a wage fund for workers in Myanmar worth 5 million euros (US$5.3 million) to pay a portion of the salaries of the most vulnerable for three months.
Myanmar has promised to cover 40 percent of the salaries of workers whose factories were closed on government orders until they pass inspections for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
More than 58,000 workers have been laid off, according to the Myanmar Garment Manufacturer Association.
In Bangladesh, 1 million workers were furloughed or laid off by late March, according to the Center for Global Workers’ Rights at Pennsylvania State University, although some have since returned to work.
According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), about 75,000 workers have not been paid for March, and it is estimated that tens of thousands more would not be paid wages owed to them.
The Bangladeshi government has announced a US$588 million aid package for its export sector to help pay employees. Garment manufacturers, which estimate they have lost almost US$3 billion in exports since the start of last month, said the funds are not enough.
Foreign-owned firms and joint ventures are not eligible for payments.
In Cambodia, where about 60,000 garment workers have been “suspended,” according to the country’s manufacturer association, workers have been promised US$70 per month — US$40 from the government and US$30 from the employer — but that amounts to just over a third of the current minimum wage.
In the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, 39-year-old Rom Phary said she and her husband had racked up US$550 of debt and interest since she lost her factory job in early March, several times her monthly salary.
Rom said her family is living off rice donated by the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, a non-governmental organization working in Cambodia, adding that she had persuaded her landlord to let her stay rent-free rather than forcing the family to return to relatives in the provinces.
“If we go back, it would be shameful. We don’t know what we would do,” Rom said.
In Myanmar, the garment industry was the fastest-growing sector of the economy, accounting for about 10 percent of the country’s exports and offering an escape route from extreme poverty for hundreds of thousands of people, many of them internal migrants from rural areas.
In Dagon Seikkan, an industrial zone on the outskirts of Yangon that is home for many migrant workers, local officials have been giving out rations of free rice to those who have been without jobs for some time.
However, Zarchi Lwin said she did not qualify as she was employed until last month.
She and her parents left their small village in the central Magway region six years ago after selling their house to pay for treatment for her brother, who eventually died from a kidney disease.
At first, the family worked as cleaners and lived in a dormitory. Then Zarchi Lwin trained herself to sew clothes and secured a sought-after job at one of the nearby factories, earning US$146 per month — enough for food, rent for a small wooden shack, and medical treatment.
She saved up for a year to buy the bangles she pawned, Zarchi Lwin said.
Sobbing, she recounted how her mother told her she wanted to die in order to lessen the financial burden on the family. Her father, a security guard at a furniture factory, has also lost his income.
“Sometimes I want to kill myself because of this situation,” Zarchi Lwin said.
Before COVID-19, garment workers in Yangon and neighboring Bago region were sending more than US$43 million in remittances to their hometowns and villages across the country each month, said Jacob Clere of Smart Textile and Garments, a EU-funded project.
“Education for children who would otherwise not have it, medicine for grandmothers who would otherwise go without, healthy food, better shelter,” Clere said, describing how remittances helped rural communities.
Many woman are now at risk of being forced into early marriage or taking on debt from loan sharks at very high rates, said Mike Slingsby, who is a regional urban poverty specialist.
In Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest garment maker behind China, 4.1 million workers or 2.5 percent of the population worked in garment factories, many of which are now closed.
About 70 percent of Dhaka’s garment industry workers left the city to return to their villages, although some have since returned to the city after some factories reopened to finish work on existing contracts, Tuomo Poutiainen of the ILO said.
However, orders for June are down 45 percent from a year ago, BGMEA president Rubana Huq said.
Banesa Begum, a 21-year-old worker laid off from a factory in Dhaka that is making clothes for Zara, among other brands, said she had nothing to send to her parents, subsistence farmers in Rangpur district.
“I know they are starving,” Banesa said.
Inditex, the owner of Zara, told that it would pay for orders from garment makers, whether finished or in production, according to the original payment schedule.
Banesa’s salary also paid for her two young brothers to go to school.
“I don’t know how I’ll manage money to continue their study. All my dreams are shattered,” Banesa said.
Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul, Sonya Dowsett and James Davey
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