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Workers across Asia feel the heat of fast fashion’s carbon footprint

When flooding destroyed her family’s rice crops, Nimol* left her home in Battabang province in northwestern Cambodia for a job in a garment factory in Kampong Speu in the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh. At the age of 20, her family ran into debt and she became the primary breadwinner for her grandfather and sister back home.

“We didn’t have money to pay for the fertilisers,” Nimol recounted. “Many people came to work here from my village; some migrated to Thailand,” she added. 

Nimol’s story is a common one among garment factory workers in Cambodia and across South and South East Asia – regions highly vulnerable to climate change. Around the world, the garment industry counts around 70 million workers.

Increasingly, evidence demonstrates that the changing climate is also negatively impacting the health and economic security of workers in garment factories, though little is being done to ensure conditions are improved. 

In a country where the number of ‘hot days’ have increased to as many as 46 days per year in the last century, a recent report by Royal Holloway, the University of Nottingham and Royal University of Phnom Penh finds that more than 64 percent of garment workers in Cambodia have experienced at least one climate change-related impact at work or outside the factory in the last 12 months – particularly pollution and extreme heat. Flooding and fires were experienced by nine and six percent of workers respectively.

“There’s very little top-down scrutiny in terms of what’s going on for workers in their workplace – the kind of health impacts, the impact on their livelihoods,” Laurie Parsons, one of the report’s authors, told TRT World. “If we look at the monitoring that does go on, which is relatively limited, almost every garment factory fails almost every inspection on heat,” Parsons adds. “It’s just too hot for workers in almost every case.”

A 2017 report by the NGO Better Factories Cambodia found that a wave of incidents of mass fainting among Cambodian factory workers was caused by poor health and safety conditions, including exhaustion, overheating and malnutrition. 

The industry is also a significant contributor to climate change: “fast fashion” has led to an increase in the production and waste of textile products. Clothing and footwear are estimated to be responsible for 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Moving the products to their final destinations across the world generates further emissions, with freight alone responsible for seven percent of global emissions. 

Precarious work conditions made worse by climate change

“Garment workers repeatedly told us they don’t have the voice to be able to raise these concerns with major brands,” Parsons says. 

“Factories are not being supported to support workers who are facing an increasing level of environmental risk,” Parsons adds. According to the research, in 78% of cases where a flood stops or partially stops production, garment workers lose money. On average, they lose something like 50 to 80 percent of their wages on those days.

The complexity of supply chains, where large brands buy from local factories and do not see these workers as their own employees, complicates the issue of accountability, while discussions around sustainability tend to not include environmental impacts on workers’ ability to make ends meet.

In 2019, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that, by the next decade, heat stress will be responsible for the loss of more than two percent of working hours worldwide every year – the equivalent of millions of jobs lost either because it is impossible to work or because workers are forced to work at a slower pace. Such productivity losses, the report notes, are particularly high in regions and sectors where informal work is common, further exposing already vulnerable workers.

A 2018 report published by Cambodia’s National Council for Sustainable Development and looking at the economic impact of climate change on the Cambodian economy found that reduced labour productivity will have the largest impact, accounting for 57 percent of all “loss and damage” – in UN climate negotiations jargon, this refers to climate-related economic losses that go beyond a country’s ability to adapt. While it affects all sectors, it is much higher in manufacturing and construction, according to the report.

“In Cambodia, there is very little in terms of regulatory requirements,” Karolien Casaer, a Cambodia expert at the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), an intergovernmental organisation working in more than 40 countries around the world, told TRT World.

“The main reason why a factory would be interested in investing in cleaner solutions is because they think it makes them more competitive,” Casaer explained, adding: “Which it often does, but a lot of it depends on what happens in other countries.” For instance, companies may be wary of investing in Myanmar over human rights concerns, but Cambodia’s recent pivot to coal power has raised eyebrows among international brands looking to “green” their image. Cambodia also has a policy of regularly raising the official minimum wage, which could in the long run drive brands to invest elsewhere, pushing Cambodian subcontractors to seek other ways to make their factories more competitive.

“The brands are driving the agenda for change are, at the same time, also part of the problem,” Casaer said. Offering thin margins on the products and short-term buying contracts triggers, as is well known, what can only be described as a race to the bottom when it comes to wage and factory conditions – including ventilation and other measures that could be used to mitigate the risk of extreme heat – or making sure that the risk arising from environmental factors that cause factory closures does not fall on the shoulders of the workers themselves.

“Factories that have workers on these very short-term, three-month rolling contracts don’t need to invest in their workers,” Parsons said, continuing, “they don’t need to invest in workers’ health or in the environment that workers are working in because they can just get new ones.”

“All the while, the garment industry is making so many positive noises about sustainability and being ‘green’ and cutting carbon emissions, about mitigating their impact on the environment,” Parsons said.

“At the same time, it’s going in the opposite direction in terms of garment workers’ economic security.”

*Name has been changed to protect her identity

Illustrations by Sao Sreymao, courtesy of Royal Holloway

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