Effects of the Coronavirus Pandemic on Garment Workers

We are living in very strange times. Entering 2020 hopeful, with new 2020 visions, nobody could predict what was about to befall the global masses. With the outbreak of the corona virus and quarantines in place around the globe, economies are shattered, the stock exchange has plummeted, businesses struggling to survive, everyone can feel the effects of this global pandemic.

Some of the people deeply affected are the garment workers, who are amongst the most vulnerable workers in the global economy and have their livelihoods at risk as factories struggle to stay afloat. Factories rely heavily on imports of raw materials such as zippers, buttons, and fabric from China. The shortage of these raw materials puts a great strain on their operations. Consumers are also only spending on necessities right now and with the quarantine brick and mortar stores have had to close which puts a strain on brands. In Myanmar, 20 factories have been shut down forcing 10,000 workers into unemployment. Many owners have refused to compensate and instead are nowhere to be found. The question is what role should the fashion industry play in ensuring the 40 million garment workers in their supply chains get compensated as they risk falling into crippling poverty?

More than 1 million garment workers in Bangladesh already have lost their jobs or have been furloughed due to the over $2.8 billion in orders cancelled or put on hold as the COVID-19 crisis continues to worsen. This leaves the factory owners high and dry as many of these orders were completed and ready to ship and some had been partially completed where all the raw materials were purchased and paid for. According to a survey of 319 garment factory owners in Bangledesh, conducted by the Centre for Global Workers’ Rights (CGWR), “72.4% said they were unable to provide their workers with some income when furloughed (sent home temporarily), and 80.4% said they were unable to provide severance pay when order cancellations resulted in worker dismissals.”  Most of these factories will not even fight this injustice for fear of losing big contracts when the pandemic is over. This is a cruel reality of just how severe the power imbalance is between big global brands and their suppliers. Typical contractual agreements leave suppliers vulnerable, as brands get to decide when products should be shipped and payment is not made until after the shipment has been made.

The governments should be putting controls in place to protect their garment industry workers as well. In Bangladesh, they had apparently urged factories not to cut jobs, however, that has not stopped many of them from laying off thousands of workers without any pay. They need to put stronger enforcement to ensure this doesn’t happen. These workers will not be finding other jobs right now to bring in money to their already impoverished households. This is a huge humanitarian crisis. The government has announced a $588 million package to help the crucial export sector pay its workers, but labor leaders say that this is not enough. These wealthy brands themselves need to step up and help out as well. These are the people making their clothes after all.

As the rest of the world stocks up their fridges and cupboards ensuring they will never miss a good meal or snack, millions of garment workers are left without the ability to put food on the table for their families. This is a time for brands to show their sense of humanity and find a way to pay for the work that has been done. The CGWR recommends that:

“The responsible approach is for brands and retailers
to find ways to access lines of credits or other forms of
government support to cover their obligations to supplier factories so that they can cover their expenses and
pay their workers in order to avoid sending millions of
workers home with no ability to put food on the table
let alone cover medical expenses.”

It’s the right thing to do.

The CGWR outlines a list of brands that have committed to pay what they owe and the ones that have not. Below is a visual of these stats by @xrfashionaction.

The big 6 retailers outlined that have said they are committed to fulfilling payment on their orders already produced or in production include: H&M, Inditex (Zara, Massimo Dutti, etc), Target, French brand Kiabi, VF Corp (North Face) and PVH (Tommy Hillfiger). This is not a problem one brand can solve, but the collective commitment from all of these big retailers would make a huge impact on the lives of these vulnerable garment workers. The problem is, there is no situation in which suppliers have any leverage or recourse if brands don’t keep their end of a deal.

Many have said they won’t cancel orders, but that doesn’t mean they will pay either. That would mean they expect them to hold the order for now however, payment isn’t made until goods are shipped so ‘not cancelling orders’ does nothing to help the situation of the garment worker unless the factories are getting paid. There’s a lot of semantics around public verbiage that can seem like they are doing more than they are.

According to Vogue Business, “suppliers in Bangladesh and other manufacturing countries look with worry to the future as brands back down from the projections of orders they had given to factories. Suppliers understand that brands are facing unprecedented uncertainty about their own futures — but they have a much smaller financial cushion than brands and lack the safety net protections of government bailouts for businesses or social services for laid-off workers. They are calling on brands to extend their sense of responsibility to their full supply chains, rather than cutting it off at their own assets and employees.”

What are your thoughts on this topic? How do you think garment workers can best be protected during this corona virus pandemic? Who should be responsible? I would love to hear your thoughts on this, so please feel free to share your opinions below. Stay safe, stay home and keep healthy everyone 🙂