COVID-19 in the Fashion Industry and Garment Workers’ Rights

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CUPERTINO, California — COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc across all sectors of the global economy, restricting trade and limiting man-hours. Yet, although every company in the world has suffered from the pandemic, few industries have seen effects as harsh as COVID-19 in the fashion industry. Buyers have canceled billions of dollars worth of clothes, resulting in massive losses for clothing companies and garment workers. Factory managers then stop paying their employees, a practice that directly exacerbates already crippling poverty in many developing nations. Upon furlough or pay withholding, many companies leave laborers with no reliable income stream to support themselves and their families.

Globalization and The Fashion Industry

In the age of globalization, the majority of clothing outlets source their labor internationally, primarily contracting labor and purchasing raw materials from countries like China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and India. Not only do these four countries dominate textile manufacturing, but the industry is also the backbone of many nations’ economies. In Bangladesh, for example, the clothing industry alone accounts for 80% of the country’s total export revenue.

Labor outsourcing creates massive wealth disparities between the brands and the factories. Brands have no obligation to stay with a certain factory and can sever ties quickly if the factory’s costs rise or production efficiency drops. Due to this extreme competitive pressure, factories run on a razor-thin profit margin, meaning that workers are the ones who bear the brunt of many cost-cutting tactics, such as longer hours and squalid conditions.

Harmful Labor Conditions

Today, approximately 65 million people work in garment factories, a job that serves as the sole source of income for many. Estimates reveal that workers receive about $33 per month, far below a living wage, placing many in extreme poverty where they struggle to live paycheck-to-paycheck. In addition, their job requires them to work 14-16 hours per day with the workday ending at 3:00 a.m. and beginning again at 7:00 a.m. for some. Some have reported that managers ban restroom or water breaks and do not allow leaves for family emergencies. Furthermore, many also face persistent and rampant sexual harassment in the workplace, from humiliation to stalking.

These abject conditions have led to heavy criticism from the public, especially in the wake of the 2012 Tazreen Fashions fire that killed approximately 112 people. The factory owner, in particular, was called out for gross negligence of his worker’s safety, preventing workers from leaving their sewing machines even after the fire alarm went off. Only five months later in April of 2013, the Rana Plaza building, housing five garment factories, collapsed, killing 1,312 people and injuring about 2,500 more. Since then, more than 109 more accidents have occurred, leading to another 27 deaths and nearly 500 injured.

COVID-19

Although COVID-19 in the fashion industry has severely impacted garment-producing countries directly, poverty and hunger for displaced employees have served to be more of a threat than the disease itself. With cutthroat practices leaving a safety net for neither factories nor workers, the supply chain essentially collapsed as the pandemic spread across the world.

As the virus spread towards Europe and eventually the U.S., large Western brands canceled $1.44 billion in orders. Although many of the orders were in progress or completed already, the majority of buyers still refused to pay the raw materials or production costs. As a result, 58% of factories were forced to partially or completely shut down, leading to more than a million Bangladeshi workers being laid off. Factories that managed to keep their doors open had to do so with little to no safety measures, facilitating the rampant spread of the virus across already-struggling communities.

Additionally, despite large-scale layoffs in the wake of COVID-19 in the fashion industry, more than 97% of fashion companies have offered no financial assistance to cover the costs of furlough and severance to their factories.

The average worker lost two to four week’s worth of pay in spring 2020. However, as factories began reopening, only 60% of workers were brought back. Furthermore, the factories did not deliver workers their full paychecks and forced many to work without pay for extended periods of time. For those who already lived in precarious paycheck-to-paycheck situations, the loss of income placed many into devastating financial ruin. Full recovery is unlikely until 2022.

Action

Following the disasters in 2012 and 2013, companies and governments worked together to slowly improve working conditions within many of these manufacturer countries. The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation helped to establish a $40 million credit facility to provide local banks with funds that could be loaned to factories for fire alarms, electrical updates and improved building foundations, among other critical renovations. Wages have risen slightly as well, although they remain extremely low.

Furthermore, the Bangladeshi government created a $588 million coronavirus stimulus package aimed at helping garment workers keep wages up as the effects of COVID-19 in the fashion industry continue. While a promising start, there is still much room to improve as the stimulus package did not sufficiently alleviate the ongoing crisis.

Internationally, numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have called for action among companies, governments and factories to expand workers’ rights, as well as hold brands accountable for their abandonment of workers during the crisis. The Center for Global Workers’ Rights has urged brands to find ways to access lines of credit and other forms of government support so that they uphold their obligations to factories. Similarly, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has laid out a specific action plan that signatories will follow, pushing governments, banks, international organizations, brands, manufacturers and trade unions to develop specific measures to protect garment workers’ rights.

COVID-19 in the fashion industry hit garment workers around the world hard, creating significant setbacks in the fight for preserving garment workers’ rights. However, awareness groups have worked to bring these rights issues to the forefront over the last decade, making notable achievements over the years. Despite the hardships of COVID-19, therefore, there is still hope for a bright future for those working in the fashion industry.

Elizabeth Lee
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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