Social Protection and the Gendered Impacts of COVID-19 in Cambodia: Longitudinal Research to 'Build Back Better' in the Global Garment Industry

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: Geography

Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic is having significant repercussions on the global garment industry, of huge importance not only to Cambodia's economy, but also to its 1 million workers, 80% of whom are women. Many garment factories are interrupting production with the effect that 1/4 of workers have been dismissed or temporarily suspended. Formal social protection in the sector, though improving due to multi-stakeholder efforts, is weak and fragile. Mixed-method longitudinal research will track and amplify the experiences and coping mechanisms of 200 women workers as they navigate the financial repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. The project's interdisciplinary team from human geography, political economy, and organisation studies will generate new knowledge on underlying and differentiating determinants of risk and resilience arising from formal and informal social protections.

The ambitious study will focus its policy attention on learning to 'Build Back Better' social protection to prevent and mitigate longer-term impacts of the pandemic and future risk events. Our approach centres women's representation in planning and decision-making as critical to 'stitching back better' just and resilient garment supply chains to make progress towards gender equality (SDG5), inclusive economic growth and decent work (SDG8). The project's impact, within its 18-month lifetime, will be compelled by its partnerships with, and pro-active convening together, of government (Cambodian Ministry of Labor, British Embassy), regulators (ILO, Better Factories Cambodia), industry (Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, H&M), think tanks (ODI), workers' organisations (CATU, the only female-led union in Cambodia), and women's media (Women's Media Center and the Messenger Band).
 
Description Covid-19 has severely impacted employment opportunity and earning potential for workers in Cambodia's garment and footwear sector. Manifesting initially as an economic crisis, the impacts of manufacturing shutdowns and consumer lockdowns around the world slowed the garment sector's output. This led to employment suspensions and terminations affecting hundreds of thousands of workers in Cambodia alone.

For two years, the ReFashion study has uniquely tracked the impacts of the pandemic on a cohort of 200 female workers in Cambodia, from January 2020 through to December 2021. The study combines a quantitative survey of female workers to measure monthly trends in employment, household finances, and wellbeing, with qualitative interviews to explore emergent themes in greater depth. Each of these components is repeated with the same cohort of participants at strategic intervals. The research methods are designed to capture an in-depth and long-term understanding of women workers' lives through the pandemic.

Our findings indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a crisis of over-indebtedness for workers in the garment industry, with severe consequences for the short and long-term health and wellbeing of workers and their families. Over-indebtedness is reached when a credit borrower 'is continuously struggling to meet repayment deadlines and has to make unduly high sacrifices related to his or her loan obligations'.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, credit borrowing had become commonplace among low-income households in Cambodia, which has one of the largest microfinance industries in the world in terms of borrowers per capita. This widescale borrowing enables households to temporarily deal with the lack of social protection and public services in the country, allowing them to meet costs of health care and invest in housing in times of urgent need. High levels of borrowing by garment workers specifically, as evidenced in the ReFashion study, indicate that flagship efforts to foster 'Decent Work' in the garment sector in Cambodia have not precluded the need for some workers to take on significant loans to supplement their low wages and fill the gaps in social protection provision.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, garment workers' 'financial inclusion' became even more vital to their ability to cope with the economic emergency they faced, by using access to credit to smooth short terms gaps in income caused by employment suspensions. Yet at the same time, reduced earning capacity hindered workers' ability to make existing loan repayments. To meet outstanding commitments, many resorted to reducing daily expenditure on necessities including food. Most workers reported their household food intake as inadequate and many reported experiencing hunger during the pandemic. Such unduly high sacrifices are neither just nor sustainable.
Exploitation Route The ILO have commissioned a Working Paper based on the study.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

 
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