Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Bangladeshi factories have already seen $138 million of orders canceled or postponed as sales constrict within the fashion industry. Myanmar has seen at least 15 factories close as a direct result of raw material shortage from China since January, leaving more than 10,000 workers jobless. In the nearby country of Cambodia, thousands of garment makers have been left unemployed. Around the globe, garment factories are struggling to stay afloat and pay garment makers for work they have already completed because of this rise of cancelled and postponed orders.
The United States of America, the largest consumer market worldwide, is currently battling an outbreak of coronavirus across its 50 states, with more than one million workers expected to lose their jobs by the end of the month. With an unsettling financial future looming ahead for individuals (and millions worried about how they will continue to pay rents, mortgages, and bills should the situation become more desperate), apparel sales are dropping dramatically. Add to this the fact that many retail stores are closing their doors in an attempt to aid in social distancing efforts.
However, despite their lack of sales, brands and retailers need to step-up to pay for previously placed orders to ensure that the most vulnerable people within their own supply chains, the women who make their products, are not abandoned during this perilous time.
Most of the fashion industry’s makers migrate from villages to cities to live in over crowded dorm-like conditions without good sanitation. A COVID-19 outbreak in these close living quarters could be devastating. Most make barely enough to subsist, living hand to mouth. A Bangladeshi maker makes $95 a month. In Ethiopia, garment workers earn a base wage of only $26 a month. These conditions leave garment makers not only at a high risk for COVID-19 exposure and spread, but also in the dangerous position of going hungry and without shelter when factories suddenly stop paying them and shut down.
What will happen to the women who make our clothes as coronavirus spreads?
Dr. Rubana Huq, President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, has released a video asking brands to be good partners and pay for the orders they had already placed. Factories have already fronted the material cost and in many cases the labor has already been done. Garment factories operate with razor thin margins and desperately need the liquidity to pay makers. Or else, Dr. Haq warns, 4.1 million makers will literally go hungry and be out on the streets in Bangladesh.
In a recent white paper, “Who Will Bail Out the Workers That Make Our Clothes?“, co-authored by Scott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium and Ineke Zeldenrust at Clean Clothes Campaign, this Dr. Haq’s sentiment is also present. “Wealthy countries are about to mobilize trillions of dollars to stanch the domestic economic damage from Covid-19. If international financial commitments can be secured that are equivalent to a tiny fraction of those amounts, this will be enough to provide vital assistance across manufacturing supply chains — keeping tens of millions of workers, hundreds of millions of their family members, and tens of thousands of businesses afloat.”
In April 2013, the Rana Plaza tragedy took the lives of 1,132 garment makers in Bangladesh when a building collapsed. It took nearly a year before the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund was created in 2014, and it took an additional year before the fund reached its target of $30 million in June 2015. In an eerily similar story, in 2012, a fire broke out in the Tazreen Fashions garment factory in Bangladesh, killing 113 garment makers. The Tazreen Claims Administration Trust wasn’t established until September 2015, and payments were still being administered to the families of victims as late as June 2016. It took years to see payment for industrial disasters like Rana Plaza and Tazreen. With COVID-19, we do not have the luxury of time.
The makers of our clothes are especially vulnerable being in countries without developed infrastructure and healthcare. According to Quartz, South Asian garment makers will be hit the hardest. “These workers live hand-to-mouth and they are panicked because they have heard that orders are being canceled,” says Kalpona Akter, founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity. Akter told Vogue Business, “From [Bangladesh], we can see the huge lines in front of [Western] supermarkets. People are buying and stocking up on food. People in production countries, like ours, don’t have the kind of money or savings to stock up on food.”
HERproject a collaborative initiative whose mission is to “unlock the full potential of women working in global supply chains through workplace-based interventions on health, financial inclusion, and gender equality” is partnered with over 45 companies, including J. Crew, Levi Strauss & Co., Ralph Lauren, L. Brands, Inc., and Columbia. How will these brands, whose leaders have publicly pledged to the health and wellbeing of the women who make their products, rise up to the challenge posed by this pandemic? How will all brands, most of which have garnered decades of profit through the labor provided in these apparel factories step up to help when the time is most dire?
In this time of uncertainty and economic unease, we hope brands and retailers will not forget about the makers whose labor, for decades, has led to brand profits and supply. We cannot abandon these makers when they need us most.
Remake, Worker Rights Consortium, and Clean Clothes Campaign are calling for an Emergency COVID-19 Fund to be set up for garment makers with support from multilateral agencies, local governments, and brands. We urgently ask fashion brands to step-up to aid garment makers as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on both their health and livelihoods.
At a minimum we ask brands to honor the orders they have already placed, to give factories some relief, and to ensure that makers are paid some months of salary. Join us by asking brands how they are supporting the women that bring their products to life during this pandemic and economic slowdown.
A victory! Since publishing this story, H&M has agree to pay for all in-production orders. We are now focused on getting other brands to do the same. Sign our petition to help put pressure on Target, Zara, Walmart, JCPenney, and other major brands who have cancelled in-production orders.