This post was written by Jessica Wynne Lockhart.
There are few industries that will escape unscathed from the economic fallout of the global pandemic. Amongst those most severely impacted will be the hundreds of millions of people who work in garment factories worldwide—the majority of which are economically vulnerable women in the “global south,” a term that refers broadly to the regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania.
Since March 2020, millions of garment workers have already lost their jobs due to international clothing brands canceling orders, delaying payments, and stopping the placement of new orders.
The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on garment workers was the focus of Business of Fashion’s presentation “From Crisis to Progress: The Future of Labour Rights in Fashion’s Supply Chain,” held during its professional summit on “How to Build a Responsible Fashion Business” presented by Shopify Plus.
According to Kalpona Akter—founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity in Bangladesh—the current situation for garment workers in Dhaka is “dire.”
She said that health and safety measures to prevent the spread of the virus are not compulsory, but it’s only one part of the workers’ concerns.
“They know they can get infected [and] they are fighting their best to save their jobs,” said Akter, in conversation with Sarah Ditty, global policy director of Fashion Revolution in London, and Sarah Kent, sustainability correspondent for the Business of Fashion (BoF).
In Bangladesh alone, it’s estimated that up to 40% of garment workers—or some 1.4 million people, the majority of which are girls or young women—are at risk of losing their jobs.
A lack of job security is certainly not new in an industry with an abysmal track record for protecting workers’ rights, particularly where it concerns health and safety.
No incident better exemplifies this than the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, a factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, where garment workers produced clothes for international brands, including Benetton, Gucci, the Children's Place, Walmart, and Joe Fresh.
The day before the disaster, deep cracks had begun to appear in the eight-story building. Factory workers were evacuated and sent home. But by the next day—despite protest—they were ordered back to work.
By 9 a.m. on Apr. 24, 2013, the building had collapsed. In what unions have called a “mass industrial homicide,” 1,134 people lost their lives and around 2,500 people were injured.
However, as Akter pointed out during her 2018 presentation at BoF’s VOICES, it was far from the first such accident. Before the Rana Plaza disaster, about 71 garment workers died each year in fires and building collapses. And while the tragedy led to calls for regulatory changes, garment workers in factories across the global south have continued to face day-to-day systemic abuse. Seven years later, the incidence of gender-based violence, poor health and safety, long working hours, and low pay remain prolific.
Akter knows the experience of being a garment worker firsthand. Alongside her 10-year-old brother, she started working in a factory when she was only 12. Akter’s mother had no choice but to send them to work to help feed the family of seven; her husband was sick and her youngest child was still an infant.
“I started working without knowing any law or rights,” Akter recalled in her 2018 presentation, which was played as an introduction to the online conference. “The only thing I had the understanding of was that these factory owners were so kind [that] they gave us jobs so I can feed my brother and sisters.”
Those “kind” factory owners were the same ones who paid her well below minimum wage, forced her to spend 12–16 hours a day working on her feet, and who physically abused her. She was just one of Bangladesh’s four million garment workers—85% of which are girls or women—who face such abuses.
According to Akter, thousands of women leave their countryside jobs in agriculture or as housemaids to migrate to the city to work in the factories. She said it is perceived as a “respectable job,” through which you can elevate yourself.
“They have a big dream that it will change their life,” Akter said at the Voices 2018. “But as soon as they come to the industry, their dream gets broken.”
Their dreams of “economic freedom and female empowerment” are replaced with a dark reality; they receive around $68 per month in wages. It’s far from enough to cover the monthly cost of living in Dhaka, let alone if that woman has to provide for her family. Yet, the industry is the backbone of Bangladesh’s economy; it’s responsible for 80% of the country’s exports and worth about $25 billion.
“Workers face enormous violence in these factories; inappropriate touch is common by the supervisors. Most of the time she doesn’t even know how to protest that,” said Akter. “If she talks, she loses her job—and she cannot afford that.”
Since 2000, Akter has devoted her career to activism, but even in speaking up now, Akter has more on the line than just her job. She’s been targeted by the government and factory owners, who have pressed charges. In 2012, Akter’s colleague and labor union organizer Aminul Islam was abducted, tortured, and killed.
Clothing production has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. And according to the Global Slavery Index, fashion is one of the key industries implicated in modern slavery by advocacy organizations—and in 2018, G20 countries imported $127.7 billion fashion garments identified as at-risk products of modern slavery.
Yet, for decades well before Rana Plaza’s collapse in 2013, people both inside and outside the industry have been fighting for rights and safety of workers in garment factories, including through advocacy, lobbying, and social campaigns.
So, what’s the reason we haven’t made more progress?
That was the question that Sarah Kent, sustainability correspondent for BoF, posed to Sarah Ditty, the global policy director of Fashion Revolution in London.
“The industry is designed [to] incentivize short-term thinking and really places profits above all else—and that means profits above people’s lives and the lives of our living planet,” said Ditty.
Ditty said that the roots of this disenfranchisement could be traced back to colonialism and the enslavement of people, such as cotton pickers in the American South.
The existing problems were only exacerbated in the 1980s and 1990s when globalization and liberalization of economies led to increasingly more complex and fragmented supply chains. Translation? The manufacturing of clothing, which had once been done close to home, was moved offshore to cut costs.
Today, said Ditty, most big brands no longer own their factories and feel like they have little control over the factory’s working conditions—that is, if they even know what factories their clothes are being produced in.
“Consumers don’t know where their clothes are being made, but brands don’t even know where their clothes are being made—let alone where the fabrics are coming from; where the components are coming from; where the fibers are being grown and processed,” said Ditty.
“That’s all led up to this moment where we’re facing a massive industry crisis due to coronavirus.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, retail shops were amongst the first to close by government regulation, causing the demand for clothing to plummet. Fast fashion retailers and big brands alike responded by immediately canceling orders—some of which were already completed and sitting at ports, waiting to be shipped out. (In Bangladesh alone, there’s been an estimated $3 billion worth of canceled and delayed orders.) Perhaps worse, payments for orders already completed were delayed.
It’s been the world’s 40 million garment workers who have borne the brunt of these canceled orders, from Vietnam, Laos, and Pakistan. In Burma in early March, local media reported that up to 10% of factories in the Yangon region had already closed and workers had not received their salaries. In Cambodia in April, more than 110 factories—responsible for employing 96,000 workers—applied to the government to stop production. In Bangladesh, one million workers have already been laid-off or furloughed due to declining global orders.
The fallout from the pandemic has revealed the empty nature of the promises once made by manufacturers and brands to protect workers, said Akter. She said that some companies have let scores of their employees go, but continued to pay their shareholders.
“Consequences are very different for these actors in the supply chain: If this pandemic goes for another few months, the brands will be losing a fraction of their profit. The manufacturers will be losing their profit share, not their establishment. Workers—they will be losing their job and they’ll be starving,” said Akter.
She said that job loss can lead to a domino effect. A woman who is unable to work and provide for her family can lead not just to hunger, but to gender-based violence and even human trafficking.
Ditty agreed, pointing out that regardless of how long the pandemic goes on for, orders won’t bounce back straight away. She said that despite progress seemingly made on sustainability, transparency, and best purchasing practices, all the promises seem to disappear the moment a crisis erupts.
“Effectively it’s workers—those who are most vulnerable in this situation—who are subsidizing the cash flow of big brands and retailers,” said Ditty.
Boycotting brands is a double-edged sword: while it holds the industry accountable, it can also harm workers. So while consumers can be called upon to raise their voices and question their purchasing decisions, ultimately change lies in the hands of the manufacturers and brands.
Both Akter and Ditty said the answer lies in regulatory changes, better contract terms for workers, and enforcement. It’s become clear that voluntary programs for brands, manufacturers, and factories aren’t enough.
“Everything needs to be rewritten, enforceable, and mandated in a new normal life. Otherwise…any emergency [that] comes, [the brands] will just clean their hands and run away and leave people in the production country to die,” said Akter.
“We really have to start talking more loudly, more firmly and more strongly about the need for human rights due diligence legislation; for the end of the culture of unfair purchasing practices,” said Ditty. “We need to be looking at using trade policy to leverage responsible buying practices, sustainable production, living wages, and true respect for workers’ rights in the textile and garment-producing countries.”
Education and understanding is the first step to creating sustainable and lasting change.
Here are some of the ways that consumers, brands, and retailers can learn more about championing workers’ rights and increased transparency in the fashion industry.
- Want to learn more about the issues facing the fashion industry? Download the Fashion Industry Report.
- Visit the International Labor Rights Forum to learn more and read the latest reports about the conditions faced by garment workers in low-wage countries.
- A useful tool for consumers, Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index 2020 rates 250 of the world’s largest brands, based on their disclosures about their social and environmental policies, practices, and impacts. “Without transparency, we cannot see or protect vulnerable people and the living planet,” explains Fashion Revolution.
- Want to know what brands are acting responsibly towards workers and suppliers? The Workers Rights Consortium has launched a COVID-19 Brand Tracker, which outlines what companies have failed to make a commitment paying in pull for orders completed or currently in production.
- If you’re a retailer, brand, wholesaler, or distributor, visit Fashion Revolution’s Get Involved site. The free downloadable info pack provides tools for businesses to demonstrate transparency in their supply chain.
- Clean Clothes Campaign has advocated for the fundamental rights of garment workers since 1989. On its site, you can find countless resources, including country profiles, research reports, and the latest news concerning the welfare of garment workers worldwide.