HOW COVID-19 IS AFFECTING GARMENT MACHINISTS AND WORKERS
Clare Press’ podcast, Wardrobe Crisis, features regular interviews with industry experts on fashion culture and sustainability. This edition features talks with Ayesha Barenblat, founder of Remake with whom the podcast was created, Kalpona Akter from the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, Dr Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, William Conklin from the Cambodia division of the Solidarity Center, Elizabeth L Cline, an ethical fashion advocate, Marissa Nuncio, the director of the Garment Worker Center in LA, Paulina, a garment worker in the LA region and finally Mostafiz Uddin, the owner of the Denim Expert factory in Bangladesh.
There are some benevolent companies making efforts to keep their staff’s heads above water, like Hermès, which is maintaining the salaries of its 15,500 employees, or Patagonia and Nike, who have continued paying their retail staff.
However, it’s clear that, in the middle of a global health crisis, it’s the people working in the shadows to make our clothes, already in situations of precarity, who bear the brunt. They have no safety nets of savings nor of government help. Even manufacturers who do good by their employees are struggling to meet the demands of paying a full staff faced with cancelled orders and lack of payments.
In Bangladesh, the second biggest garment producer in the world, has seen protests as many of the 4.1 million workers are laid off. In March, there were mass cancellations of orders which were completed or nearly completed. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) reported that 953 million garments, or $3 billion worth of garments, which were ready for export, have been cancelled.
The president of the BGMEA, Dr Rubana Huq, implores brands to honour their contracts and pay their suppliers. It’s the interests of both parties to maintain healthy business relationships, she says. Their efforts to strengthen these deals before the crisis have become essential now. Working together is the only way we will get through this period of difficulty.
Millions of workers, predominantly young women in the global south, go without enough to sustain their normal life. Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion and The Conscious Closet, explains how these people are paying disproportionately for the shutdown of the industry as they are owed money and have no replacement for this loss of income. She says that brands are legally and morally obliged to pay for their orders, as many of these brands earn up to $3 billion in profit a year but push the risk onto those lower in the supply chain. Covid-19 has put labour rights at the forefront of ethical fashion discussions, and Cline suggests that many of these companies may be sued for human rights violations as the West wakes up to the injustices served.
Kalpona Akter, the founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, questions the health risks facing workers as well. They’re making PPE without the appropriate equipment or social distancing measures themselves, with only one hospital in Bangladesh equipped to test for the virus. Akter reaffirms that many are unsure if they will get paid leave should they fall ill. Fearing for lost wages and for their health, the lockdown in Bangladesh has been extended to 5 May, leaving many uncertain for their future.
The co-creator of this podcast, Remake, “a community of millennial and Gen Z women who pledge to wear our values and put an end to fast fashion,” sheds more light on the current situation for garment workers. Ayesha Barenblat, the founder, created links with the Pay Up Petition, the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Workers Rights Consortium to demand brands pay for their orders. She points out the long history of brands turning their backs on workers, citing Rana Plaza, as they hope to distance themselves from the fragility of the supply chain they helped to create. Many brands are invoking the force majeureclause, or calamity clause, which uses unforeseeable circumstances are the reason brands can’t fulfil their contracts.
Barenblat explains the supply chain’s fragility; manufacturers must front the cost for labour and for fabrics, only being paid at least a week after the order has arrived. This places all the risk on the most vulnerable. By invoking force majeure, companies are forcing manufacturers into difficulties. Some companies have laudably not done this, like H&M, which maintains there “social license to operate”. Other companies will go morally bankrupt should they not follow decent business practices.
Remake has named some of the companies who are honouring their contracts (Inditex, H&M, M&S, Target, Kiabi, PVH) and others which are under fire (Outfitters, Coles, Tesco, Walmart and Gap). These brands may well be working out mutually beneficial solutions to the problems faced, but this information is yet to be publicised. Brands don’t want to endanger their buying relationships, but the questions still hang over the industry: who will pay, how much and how quickly?
The owner of Denim Expert factory, Mostafiz Uddin, one of the first and most vocal faces of sustainability, has suffered directly from cancellations of completed orders, letters denying payment and a drought of future orders for three months. He entreats his clients to pay for the labour of the work done, so people will not go starving on the streets. Even leaders in sustainability are acting poorly in the current context.
The struggles are not confined to the global south; in LA, 45,000 garment workers have been without income as they are labelled non-essential and told to stay home, unable to find other work. Talking to Marissa Nuncio, the director of the Garment Worker Center in LA, and Paulina, a garment worker, a sense of the difficulties faced in the West are evoked.
Cambodia relies on garment fabrication for 16% of their GDP and 80% of their export earnings but was already in a tough spot before Covid-19 hit. Many manufacturers were unable to source fabrics and were struggling to pay their workers. The government has offered to pay 20% of salaries if manufacturers pay the another 20%, but this is obviously not enough. William Conklin wonders if this global pandemic will jumpstart a “new normal”, effectively ending fast fashion and the pressures placed on workers.
Long-term, Barenblat sees the ethical and sustainable brands weathering the storm, as they invest in their workers as assets. It is clear that delivering incredible amounts of product in an undisciplined way, with unstable supply chains, for these clothes to end up in landfill, is an untenable model. This podcast has highlighted some of the reasons why we should be looking to a better future for our garment workers, if not out of a guilty conscience, then for a more stable economical model.