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Covid-19: the Impact on Garment Workers

Covid-19 has instilled panic in so many of us and has impacted a multitude of aspects in our daily lives. The days of shopping until you drop seem like a distant memory as strict lockdown measures keep our high-street stores closed until further notice.

Most of us in the Western world have now come to accept our newfound lives. Days filled with online shopping and baking banana bread every chance we get have become the new normal. However, it’s important that we don’t forget about the impact that these changes are having on the people behind our brand-new tie dye sweatshirt.

I’m talking about those people who work tirelessly and for so little in return to provide us consumers with the latest fashion trends filling up our Instagram feed – garment workers.

Cause and effect

Those furthest down the supply chain are the ones having to bear the biggest burden during these uncertain times. This comes as a result of retailers experiencing an 80% drop in footfall. In the UK alone, clothing and footwear sales are expected to decline by over £11 billion. This will have a detrimental impact in places like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia – some of the largest exporters of clothes.

Coronavirus is truly emphasising the cracks in an already frail system. This virus is further exposing how our favourite brands’ supply chains look to benefit their shareholders at the expense of garment workers.

Many brands that we know and love are acting in an unjustifiable manner as they demand large discounts from suppliers. Likewise, other brands are cancelling or suspending their orders whilst refusing to cover the costs for work already carried out. Consequently, suppliers are making a loss, forcing them to halt operations until things take a turn for the better. And of course, these decisions are being made without even the slightest regard for garment workers as retailers fail to consider (or simply ignore) the negative impact of their actions.

The impact on garment workers

Bangladesh alone is home to 4.1 million garment workers and is really feeling the strain of the global pandemic. For example, 1,150 factories have been closed and 2.28 million garment workers have been impacted.

Workers are being furloughed or fired, with little to no pay, as the source of their livelihood ceases to operate. The impact that this is having on these workers is devastating. Garment workers are paid very little already meaning that their savings are low. This leaves them very vulnerable in circumstances such as these. Moreover, their situation has been made worse as they are now worried about how they are going to put food on the table or pay their rent.

Even those who are still getting paid are having to send money to their family members. This leaves them with no money and no way out in the unfortunate instance of a loved one becoming sick.

Back to normal

Little by little, as lockdown restrictions are eased, factories are beginning to operate once more. Whilst this is good for workers in helping to calm their financial worries, it brings about a whole load of other concerns for the safety of these workers.

In some ways, it is a double threat; garment workers know that they need to work so they can earn money and feed their families. However, they must also protect their health and avoid contracting the virus. If they become ill, they may face punishment from their place of work for taking sick leave. They also risk infecting other family members given the small spaces in which they live.

Garment workers now face the tough decision between wealth and wellbeing. But as their concerns over money grow deeper, it is becoming more difficult for them to refuse work and it’s not hard to see why.

The blame game

Given the facts, it’s difficult to know who to blame. Before we get our pitchforks at the ready, it’s important to take a step back and consider the difficulties that each one of these institutions faces.

People are quick to criticise the factories but it is impossible for them to pay their employees when retailers aren’t paying the money that they owe. In addition, they can’t be expected to keep their factories open when government regulation forbids them from doing so. This would only impose further costs for suppliers, digging themselves deeper into a hole.

The pressure that retailers are facing during this crisis should not be undermined either. However, that’s not to say that retailers should avoid the responsibility they have to the people making their clothes. It’s time for brands to put their money where their mouth is. They must uphold their end of the bargain to showcase their ethical and sustainable approach that they’re always talking about.

Whilst it’s all well and good blaming the factories and retailers, maybe more focus should be placed on the government. In other words, more legislation and financial aid is needed to support the fashion industry during these difficult times.

The solution

With so many driving forces, finding a solution is no easy task.

Brands appear to be putting the needs of their local employees ahead of those who are working overseas. If a brand is going to rely on thousands of garment workers, they should be considered as equal to local employees.

That is to say, retailers need to protect all of their employees equally. It’s time for retailers to figure out a new system which prioritises the people over the money that can be made at the expense of employees.

Governments also need to take action and introduce rules and regulations. It is important now, more than ever, to protect the human rights of garment workers and to give them a helping hand in fighting their battle. These individuals deserve the have their voices heard and to be supported in such unpredictable and worrying times.

Above all, these institutions need to work together to minimise the damage done to the people who are simply trying to survive.

It’s time for change

Even without the presence of Covid-19, garment workers already face a whole range of struggles in their day-to-day lives. From being paid next to nothing, to working in a crowded factory with a severe lack of safety precautions, these people experience a great amount of vulnerability; a vulnerability which has only been amplified by this global crisis.

Although it’s hard to see the positives at a time like this, perhaps this situation can open our eyes to the disregard that companies have for the individuals who work so hard in exchange for so little.

It is time for the treatment of these workers to be brought to light. Companies need to clean up their supply chain and start taking responsibility for those who are hit the hardest. All employees must be treated equally and with the utmost care, no matter where they are in the supply chain.

It is time for change.

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