US retailers promise COVID-19 aid for workers in Asia

A consortium will help partners in the region create a ‘more resilient’ workforce

US retailers promise COVID-19 aid for workers in Asia

With global supply chains disrupted by COVID-19, US businesses and industry associations are banding together to provide pandemic relief to supply-chain workers across Asia.

A consortium of retail, apparel and footwear companies – which includes Walmart, Target, Nike, Levi Strauss and Gap – signed an agreement with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to “alleviate hardships” faced by this predominantly female workforce.

“With unprecedented speed and scale, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on global supply chains, disrupting trade and investment, putting frontline workers at risk, and eliminating the jobs of millions of other workers, especially women,” the USAID said.

Read more: COVID-19: Are employers doing enough for frontliners' welfare?

“The apparel, footwear, and fashion-accessories (AFFA) sector in Asia has been among the most-affected industries, challenged by constraints on supply and demand that arose from stay-at-home orders, temporary closures of businesses, stoppages in production, backlogs in shipment, and cargo delays,” the agency said.

Supply-chain workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam will reportedly benefit from the agreement. The consortium said it will work with local partners to create a “more resilient AFFA sector and workforce, enhance the rights and welfare of workers in AFFA factories, and empower women in the AFFA workforce”.

When factories treat workers fairly
Even before the pandemic hit, however, poor working conditions had long plagued a number of Asian factories that were known to supply US fashion brands. In 2018, labour groups and women’s rights advocates investigated claims of gender-based violence in garment supply chains.

Reports published by Global Labour Justice found more than 540 workers had allegedly been subjected to abuse and intimidation in Asian garment factories.

Read more: COVID-19: How the world is caring for frontline workers

New trade agreements such as TPP11 – which Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Singapore signed – however, include better protections against abuse for the most vulnerable workers in the region.

“Across Asian factories, new management improvements are being tested to advance working conditions and comply with international labour conventions while enhancing productivity and competitiveness. These include training of managers, promotion of work-life balance, and incentive pay,” the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada reported.

“There is growing understanding that when factories treat workers fairly – especially women – they show greater psychological empowerment to advocate change, while workers who experience verbal and physical abuse by supervisors feel disempowered, their mindset suffers, and they become less productive at work,” the IDRC said.

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