Evie Gilbert, for the Feminist Futures Programme
8 November 2023
“I’m afraid I’ll lose my job because of less orders”
As Chantha and her daughter sat cooking dinner outside the door to their rented room they shared with another 2 workers, they expressed frustrations at the loss of overtime, fear of losing their jobs, and the burden that a reduction in orders is having on their everyday lives, “I am afraid that I’ll lose my job because of less orders. Normally, when the contract due date approaches, the administration will call workers to inform them if they are or aren’t allowed to renew their contract. Many workers haven’t had their contract renewed because of less work in the factory”. It soon became apparent that this was a story I would hear repeatedly throughout the interviews in Phnom Penh’s garment factory dorm rooms.
Women working on the production line of Asia’s garment factories are feeling the impacts of global crises, geopolitical tensions, and economic downturns, and are vulnerable to changes on a global scale. Fears around job security and securing a decent income run high in garment workers’ communities. Sophea, another garment worker in Cambodia’s capital, tells us about the reduction in orders and how it is affecting groups of workers in the factory:
“Recently due to less purchase orders, there are less workers required, so policies and regulations become stricter. Hence, bad language and blame are frequently laid on workers who make mistakes or don’t perform well. Workers are grouped into lines and any line who doesn’t perform well is likely to get terminated.”
Livelihood mitigation strategies for many of the workers I met included recruiting other family members into garment work to bring their take-home wage up to enough to cover daily costs and to send money back to families working on farms or looking after young children. Vanna’s 16-year-old daughter left school to start working in the garment factory with her mother,
“After quitting school… I wanted her to have a job rather than doing nothing… And now she is a garment worker…When there is no overtime, my monthly income also drops. I have to spend money on rent payments and daily expenses. And I also send some money to my parents in my hometown. Luckily, my daughter also helps me to handle financial issues in the family.”
These are the experiences of just a few garment workers in Cambodia alone. Across Asian garment manufacturing countries, the most vulnerable workers in supply chains fear for the future of their work, experiences of precarity become the norm, and global pressures creep into their everyday lives. This blogpost will draw on the lived experiences of garment workers I have interviewed in Cambodia while situating their experience within a wider crisis of uncertain futures of work for many women in garment factories throughout Asia. Global economic crises, the Russia-Ukraine war, and uncertain geopolitical tensions – while seemingly a world away from a production line making t-shirts from the US and EU markets – have a direct and damaging effect on the security of many women’s work and experiences of insecurity and precarity are assumed to characterise present and future work on the factory floor.
Feminist Futures of Garment Work
Discussions of the futures of garment work often focus on industry trends such as digitalisation, automation, and sustainability, occurring and on-coming factors which will disrupt and reshape the world of work for those engaged in the global garment supply chain. While these trends have also created uncertainty around technological displacement and the greening of jobs, shocks to the global economy do not afford workers the luxury of speculation and pre-emption around how the future of their work may be affected. Adopting a feminist lens, centring the perspective of marginalised workers is essential, particularly in instances of crisis and we can approach global phenomena from the experiences of female workers on the factory floor – giving voice to fears around uncertain livelihood options.
The World’s Factory
Asia is considered the “garments and textiles factory of the world”, accounting for around 55% of global textiles and clothing exports in 2019. Producing countries include China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Asia’s garment workforce has become highly feminised and has allowed suppliers to provide mass employment in the formal sector for many women while also providing the global garment industry with cheap labour. Over 35 million women were reported to be working in the Asia-Pacific garment, footwear, and travel goods sector in 2020. The success of garment manufacturing in Asia has been driven by the ‘race to the bottom’ which chases cheap labour in the Global South. However, human rights and environmental requirements and concerns have impacted sourcing decisions for brands: manufacturers must continue to compete on efficiency and cost while attempting to meet social and environmental standards. These requirements have already put downward pressure on the garment workforce whereby investments in meeting international standards are felt by cost-cutting and increasing demand on the workforce.
Global Crises and the Garment Sector in Asia
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed long-standing inequalities within the global garment industry with suppliers across Asia not being paid for cancelled orders and garment workers experiencing suspensions, lay-offs, and wage theft. Despite the recovery felt in 2022, particularly in garment exports to the US and Europe, 2023 has slowed the post-pandemic recovery and an economic downturn threatens workers’ livelihoods and security in garment work further. 2023 has brought about a new bout of threats to garment workers’ job security in the future in the form of rising inflation, soaring costs of raw materials, rising energy costs, and the Russia-Ukraine war. 58% of fashion executives interviewed by McKinsey felt that geopolitical tensions, disruptions to the supply chain, and the energy crisis would continue to disrupt the global garment industry.
Rising inflation has had a considerable impact on consumer demand for clothing, resulting in a large cut to orders of textiles and garments from Asia. At the start of 2023, garment and footwear exports to the US from Cambodia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Vietnam fell between 20% and 30%. The reduced demand is causing suppliers to cut the workforce and suspend factory production. In Sri Lanka, the temporary closure of 10 factories as a result of decreasing demand meant that 5,000 workers lost their jobs in May this year. The Ministry of Labour in Cambodia reported that in the first 6 months of 2023, the workforce shrank by 24,988 workers despite an increase in the number of factories by 11 showing that factories are operating nowhere near full capacity.
In Bangladesh reduced orders combined with the energy crisis caused partly by the Russia-Ukraine war is putting suppliers under pressure, which is consequently being felt by the 4.4 million workers employed in the garment sector. The cost of doing business in Bangladesh, usually considerably cheaper than many of its competitors due to the incredibly low $75 monthly wage, is on the rise as suppliers have to make use of diesel generators to fuel garment factories. In addition to the energy crisis it contributes to, the Russia-Ukraine war also impacts exports for Asian garment manufacturers. The reduced flow of garment and apparel goods to Russia has the potential to cut export profits in Asia by $1-2 billion if sanctions significantly reduce or interrupt sourcing from Asia, particularly China and Bangladesh.
These trends do not exist independently from garment workers on the factory floor and the global crises felt by the industry have immediate, direct, and gendered impacts on the workforce in the global value chain. Garment workers in the most vulnerable positions in the supply chain are experiencing reduced available overtime hours and therefore pay, suspensions, and job insecurity. As global trends heighten, reshaping global production and encouraging new sourcing decisions by buyers, women face precarious futures of work. Dependency on garment employment is a common theme in much of Asia, in countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar where alternative livelihoods are informal, insecure, and often home-bound. The global garment industry depends on women in factories and yet, a decent and secure future of work is in question as employers sacrifice the well-being of workers due to reduced profit margins and inconsistent orders.
My interviews with garment workers in Cambodia revealed a sense of uncertainty around the future of work, but also uncertainty around how far into the future they should be thinking. Some of this uncertainty stemmed from fear of displacement by technology, based on stories from other workers telling of machinery reducing the production line to a single worker. But overwhelmingly, this was pushed aside by fears that there will not be a need for workers in the immediate future if orders continue to decline. For many garment workers the ‘future’ is a lot sooner – and closer – than the dominant discourse around the future of work often suggests , Rather than feeling the threat from processes such as automation, then, uncertain futures of work often mean the inability to keep hold of a current job or fear of a factory closing down in the immediate future. Three workers shared their concerns about how the global economic crisis may impact their precarious working lives:
“Now there is less work and less income. I feel insecure because I have heard that Chinese owners have made a big loss in garment factories. I am worried that the factory will shut down, so I have no income to support my family.”
“As I can see nowadays, the factory situation is not good at all. Many factories have shut down, and a lot of workers are suspended and terminated due to the world’s economic crisis.”
“I don’t know what to do. I must take it for granted. Currently, the factory I am working for is having critical financial problems. Probably, the factory will shut down soon…the percentage of incentives is also low unlike before. Now workers feel anxious and frustrated.”
As the pandemic revealed, in times of crises the most vulnerable workers are most drastically impacted, losing out in a priority contest to profit. The pandemic saw an increase in insecure livelihoods for women working in garment factories in Asia, with many returning to home-based work or domestic and care roles with no guarantee that their roles in formal employment would return. The current global economic crisis, energy crisis, and geopolitical tensions that heighten the feeling of precarity in garment work suggest that decent work is volatile for women on the factory floor. For suppliers in Asia there is pressure to react and respond to demands from the international market to suit buyers, yet are the first to be neglected in times of crisis, and this pressure is passed from supplier to worker. One worker in a factory in Kandal province, Cambodia shared, “If there’s no jobs in this factory I’d go find another factory to work and if I couldn’t find one then I have no other choice since all I can do is work in a garment factory”. The situation is the same for women across Asia’s garment-producing countries who have been absorbed into low-skill work with little opportunity for secure livelihoods beyond the factory floor.
Garment workers’ futures are intrinsically tied to global contexts and the Asia Floor Wage Alliance argues that the brands who utilise these production network should be considered a joint employer with the factory, in order to avoid uncertainty around responsibilities for violations of workers’ rights and decent work. Brands’ actions hold the power to influence the future of work for garment workers in manufacturing sites around the world and the foot-loose nature of brands and their ability to move production sites at short notice contributes to the current and future precarious employment of women in factories. Workers are conduits of economic growth for the garment sector and profit for brands, yet in times of crises the financial decisions made by brands can devastatingly impact experiences of insecurity, influencing the future livelihoods of workers. As the economic slowdown reduces the garment workforce due to fewer orders, workers, particularly women, may be forced to accept jobs with worse working conditions, lower wages, and no access to social security that the garment sector in much of Asia offers. This underlines why women’s experiences of precarity, not only in relation to industry trends but also to economic shocks and geopolitical tensions, must be listened to in preparing for the future of garment work.
Evie Gilbert is a Human Geography Ph.D. candidate at the Royal Holloway University of London researching the future of work and invisible labour in Cambodia’s garment industry. The research focuses on the imagined futures of work for female garment workers in Cambodia, drawing on technological displacement and resilience building and the critique of linear models of development for a highly feminised workforce. This research is positioned at the cross-section between labour and feminist geography to engage with speculative and anticipatory knowledge in future of work studies.