Weakening Legal Protections for Garment Workers in Asia

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May 27, 2021

Dear colleagues,

Over the past year, the WRC has tracked a disturbing trend: as their populations faced the ravages of Covid, the governments of several garment-producing countries in Asia acted to strip away and undermine worker protections, a move often framed as a way to attract new investment.

In Indonesia and India, for example, government leaders moved aggressively during the pandemic to pass laws that are likely to result in worse treatment for workers or to suspend existing legal protections. These changes will increase the number of vulnerable temporary workers, slow wage gains, and intrude on workers’ decisions about forming unions and choosing their leadership. This assault on workers’ rights did not begin with the pandemic, but its acceleration in some countries during the pandemic, at a time when workers have found themselves in particularly precarious financial positions, is especially disturbing.

Indonesia’s government has attracted particular international attention for passing sweeping changes in an “omnibus law,” which Amnesty International’s Indonesia Executive Director, Usman Hamid, called “a catastrophic law” that “threatens human rights and will have a regressive effect on human rights in Indonesia, namely on… rights at work.” Hamid also notes that the law was drafted and passed without “meaningful consultation” with worker organizations or civil society. Among other changes, the law will make it possible for employers to indefinitely maintain workers as temporary employees and decrease severance pay and leave time.

In India, state governments suspended the application of existing labor laws as they relate to new enterprises, including removing or weakening limits on working hours and safety conditions. In some cases, this lack of worker protections is scheduled to last not only through the pandemic, but for a period of years going forward. In addition, the national parliament passed four laws which overhaul and, in many cases, weaken worker protections, which are currently awaiting implementation. Among other changes, these laws would empower the government to permit any new employer to ignore worker safety requirements.

The WRC is also tracking concerning trends in Cambodia regarding temporary employment arrangements and access to the Arbitration Council, the country’s key mechanism for adjudicating workers’ rights disputes. A 2018 law restricted the use of temporary workers in Cambodia, limiting employers’ ability to maintain workers on a temporary status for a period of multiple years. More recently, the government issued edicts and took positions that not only contradict compensation practices established by the Arbitration Council, but also contradict the main law itself. In addition, the authorities have been administratively blocking workers’ access to the Arbitration Council, making it impossible for workers to seek justice in many cases.  

These steps backwards by governments of major garment-producing countries underscore the importance of university codes of conduct and WRC monitoring for several reasons. First, the trend towards increasing the length of time that workers may be considered temporary, and increasing the categories of work that can be performed by temporary workers, will leave more workers at risk of violations of their rights, an issue we previously documented in Cambodia.

Second, as the Asia Floor Wage Alliance noted in its report Garment Workers under Threat from Labour Deregulation in Asia, none of these legal changes include commitments to increase investigative and enforcement capacity in any meaningful way. The significant lack of capacity dedicated to investigation and enforcement will thus continue, with WRC investigations and university code enforcement, to play a crucial role in identifying and remedying violations of university codes and international standards, as well as national law.

Third, the WRC will engage in ongoing monitoring and analysis of not only these new laws, as well as the suspension of existing labor laws, but also of more detailed regulations and other aspects of implementation in order to identify areas where national or local laws have dropped their requirements below that of university codes or other international standards. Where needed, we will issue guidance to licensees to clarify their code obligations.

The WRC will continue monitoring these changes to labor laws, regulation, adjudication, and enforcement, along with developments in Sri Lanka and other nations, and engaging with our partners on the ground to determine the likely impacts on workers producing collegiate apparel. Please feel free to contact us with any questions about these developments.

Sincerely,

Scott Nova and Jessica Champagne 
Worker Rights Consortium 
www.workersrights.org