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Fashion’s sustainability problem: How has Covid-19 affected garment workers?

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

As we are all aware (unless you have been living under a rock), there is a global pandemic going on. With the world being at a standstill, this has affected a lot of different industries, businesses and workers. We love fashion and we love the people who work in the fashion industry – not just those at the forefront such as designers, but also those who work behind-the-scenes making our clothes.

Sustainability is very important to us at THE FASHION BLUEPRINT so we decided to look into the ways in which Covid-19 affects garment workers in different countries and what we, as a global fashion community can do to help. Have a read through and do not hesitate to email us your opinions, questions or feedback. We would love to hear from you!

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UK Lockdown

The recent pandemic caused by the new coronavirus (Covid-19) has rapidly spread to a great percentage of the globe, since it first emerged in China at the end of 2019. Currently more than 1 million people are known to be infected and more than 60,000 deaths have been recorded in total - over 4,000 of which happened in the UK.

On 23 March 2020, British prime minister Boris Johnson ordered non-essential shops and any other form of non-essential trade to temporarily cease operations, as a preventative measure against the spread of the deadly virus. This and the other social distancing measures have been put in place in an attempt to protect not only the employees of these businesses, but also the general public. The lockdown is being enforced for a minimum period of 3 weeks, after which time it will be reviewed by the government’s crisis committee. Following the clear instructions given by the prime minister, all fashion retailers were required to send their staff home and close their stores.

Rishi Sunak (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) has since then announced a nationwide job retention scheme designed to protect workers affected by the measures imposed by the government. Grants of up to 80% of the salary of workers will be given to businesses if they keep their employees on their payroll, rather than laying them off as the economy declines. The payments will be worth up to a maximum of £2,500 per month, which is just above the median income in the UK.

“Now more than at any time in our history we will be judged by our capacity for compassion. Our ability to come through this won’t just be down to what government or businesses do but the individual acts of kindness that we show each other.” – Rishi Sunak

Sunak stated that there would be no limit on the funding available to pay employees’ wages. The payments will be backdated to the beginning of March, open for at least three months and may be extended if necessary. Considering this, it could be said that job security and employment have been secured for UK workers.

However the majority of fashion companies have a global supply chain – many of which produce their collections in underdeveloped countries with more fragile economies such as in Bangladesh, India, Vietnam and Cambodia. It has been widely documented that fashion manufacturers are often overstretched with production orders and given unfair payment terms, whilst garment workers are often overworked and undercompensated.

With this in mind, we set out to investigate how the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has affected or is predicted to affect manufacturers and garment workers.

How has Covid-19 affected manufacturers?

Textile business accounts for 80% of Bangladesh’s exports. Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has reported that they lost $10m on 17 March 2020, due to order cancellations across 20 factories – this included orders which were ready to ship, meaning that suppliers are now stuck with this stock surplus until further notice. The president of BGMEA, Rubana Huq, has said to the New York Times“the cancellations and hold instructions coming in from Western fashion retailers are pushing us to the point of insolvency, with massive open capacity and raw materials liabilities.” A factory manager said “The situation is very bad. The Bangladeshi supply chain is in complete disarray with many foreign brands acting irresponsibly”. His factories supply European and American brands such as Zara, Gap, and Levi's.

In the UK, Primark and New Look are some of the retailers who have allegedly cancelled upcoming orders from their manufacturers. Other highstreet chains such as Accessorize, Debenhams and M&Co have extended their payment terms with suppliers. This is an attempt to manage cashflow and protect retailers’ own profitability. From an accounting and merchandising perspective it would be justifiable, but in terms of corporate social responsibility it is highly questionable. Business decisions like this can have a very detrimental domino effect. A sharp and sudden decrease in retail sales affects brands negatively, which then affects their ability to pay their suppliers, which then overwhelms the supply chain as a whole.

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Will garment workers still get paid?

Many critics are often quick to point fingers, due to fashion’s history of being largely unethical towards garment workers, manufacturers, the environment and sometimes society at large. It is important to remember that this pandemic is an unpredictable and unprecedented event, so many businesses would have not had the opportunity to effectively plan ahead for times like this.

“For them it’s a question of the survival of the businesses, for us it’s the survival of our 4.1 million workers.” - Rubana Huq (President of the BGMEA)

Fashion retailers must protect their businesses and manufacturers must protect their workers. But the question is how? A potential solution would have been for manufacturers to perhaps switch production from fashion garments to medical equipment such as hospital gowns, face masks and scrubs which are now in high demand. This could help them improve cash flow in the short-term whilst the fashion industry is in suspense.

There is also a question of whether manufacturers should even be operating in the first place, considering that it is a global pandemic and the health and safety of workers may be at risk – given they work in close proximity with each other. In Italy for example, the government lockdown order does not include industrial production and manufacturing, which means garment workers are still expected to continue their activities. It is therefore imperative that manufacturing plants are regularly sanitised and that there is a safe distance of at least one or two metres between workers. Some suppliers such as Ratti – an Italian fabric manufacturer for international luxury brands – have even gone as far as allowing employees to work on a voluntary basis, with the same legal and compensation terms. An initiative like this is yet to take place in the Far East, in spite of the large sums of revenue that some manufacturers make – especially the ones dealing with large retailers. On the contrary, when Bangladesh was placed on lockdown on 26 March 2020, factory owners made it clear that they were not in a position to pay their employees. It has since been reported that millions of workers are owed wages and have been furloughed without pay.

There has been an ongoing industry-wide argument that fashion must urgently apply some structural changes in order to become more sustainable. There is definitely a need for the industry to offer more sustainable fashion jobs. What are some solutions you believe could be implemented in order to help alleviate the manufacturing industry and protect garment workers during the current global pandemic?

Written by Giovanna Vieira Co, 2020


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