WEBINAR FEATURES HNSEA GARMENTS HOMEWORKERS
What has happened to garments homeworkers given the trends in the global garments industry as well as the impact of COVID-19?
Homenet Southeast Asia, in cooperation with WIEGO, hosted a webinar to discuss this question last June 19.
Homenets from Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand presented, together with Mnet from Vietnam. Marlese von Broembsen of DFID also made a presentation connecting the situation of garments homeworkers to the operations of global brands .
The Homenet presentations presented individual as well as collective stories of garments homeworkers and their situation working for both foreign and local brands. Common experiences include very low piece rates below the minimum wage, no social protection, irregular and seasonal work, and dependence on agents or middlemen.
The garments industry experienced decline during the 1997-98 fiinancial crises and the 2005 termination of the garments quotas under the Multi-Fiber Agreement. The decline was most felt in both formal and informal employment, with factories closing down, unions being destroyed, and displaced workers trying to find jobs in homework and other forms of informal work.
Marlese von Broembsen framed the situation of garments homeworkers in terms of the operations of garments supply chains, particularly those under global brands like H & M, Marks and Spencer, etc. She explained that the global brands are ordering garments from developing countries because of the low wages . Thus prices can be kept low, especially at the manufacturing stage, while profits can be maintained or even increased at the marketing or retailing side in developed countries. Work is outsourced by local firms to homeworkers because of even lower labor costs, as well as flexibility to engage workers when demand is high, and drop them when demand is low.
Thus, there is a need for workers in both formal and informal employment in the garments sector, particularly those working for global brands, to develop a strategy to negotiate with the big companies and improve working conditions especially of the invisible work force; the homeworkers. There is need to put pressure on the big brands. This is what WIEGO and the regional homenets are trying to develop together with NGOs focusing on workers’ rights in the garments incudstry, including Clean Clothes Campaign, Worker Rights Consortium, and Center for Global Workers’ Rights.
However, the Covid pandemic has intervened, depressing demand for garments both global and locally, and putting even more workers, formal and informal, out of work. For homeworkers in particular, the country homenets reported plummeting incomes, ballooning debts, impending hunger, and lack of government recognition and assistance. In response, the Homenets have provided emergency relief in the form of
food packs and hand sanitizers. Homeworkers have also shifted to making face masks and personal protective equipment to continue earning. Their organizations have also joined local and global campaigns to put informal workers in the center of economic recovery as essential workers.