An estimated 1 million garment workers have already lost their wages in Bangladesh since the outbreak of the pandemic. The cost of the Covid-19 on apparel workers is likely to be greater than the world has ever witnessed.
It will overshadow the Rana Plaza building collapse, which occurred seven years ago in Bangladesh and brought global attention to the real cost of fast fashion and its burden on women workers. Sadly, the Covid-19 crisis is revealing how little the supply chain dynamics that were understood to have caused the Rana Plaza disaster have been addressed in the last seven years.
Research shows that before the coronavirus pandemic began, awareness of the ethics of fashion production was at an all-time high. So, however, was the speed of fast, globalised fashion. Now, governments are scrambling to shut borders and we are being encouraged to shop locally. Consumption of fashion has dropped by up to 60 per cent in Australia and most countries around the world. If you are anything like us, you are reading this blog in your pajamas or leisure wear. The consequences for the workers who normally make the fashion we wear are dire. While we are holed up in our houses, is easy to feel as though our worlds have shrunk, and with it, our responsibilities. There is a big risk that the momentum behind the ethical fashion movement will be lost.
What happens when demand for global fashion drops?
Though global supply chains have brought employment and economic growth to poor countries, they have been designed to provide flexibility and the greatest value to those who govern them. In fashion supply chains, big brands and agents set the rules. One very important rule right now is that until products are shipped to customers, brand buyers, don’t pay. Big brands are now rapidly cancelling their orders one after the other. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association reported cancelled orders worth 3.17 billion USD in exports as of 20 April. India stands to lose similar amounts. The picture is looking much the same for other garment producing countries like Vietnam and Myanmar. Countries that already have poor employment protection and labour standards are now left with the responsibility and the cost of thousands of jobless workers. But most of these countries lack established, wide, social security systems.
Women carry the mother-load of the collapse of global supply chains
Covid-19 and its consequences came as a shock to most of us, but these gendered employment structures should not. Garment production is a labour-intensive, feminised industry that leverages gender norms to keep costs of production low. In our research on the garment sector we see how women are seen as disposable and easier to control, underpinning the undervaluation of their work. The flexible, low cost and fast production that characterises industries like garment production translates into low wages, low social protection and fast fall into poverty for workers. These are the employment structures that support global production and our consumption, keeping workers in precarious work.
Rethinking the fashion supply chains to be fairer, sustainable and resilient against human rights abuses
What we know so far is that the impacts of Covid-19 lock downs have been abrupt with no time to prepare, leaving suppliers bearing the costs of in-process contracts. The likely long-term impacts depend on the actions of buyers, and the pressure consumers put on them now.
Some brands are committing to paying for orders that have already been produced, regardless of consumer demand for these products. H&M was the first brand to announce that they would has pay their suppliers for already manufactured orders that has not yet been shipped, followed by some of their peers like Inditex, Target, Marks & Spencer and Kiabi). Australian brands such as Scanlan Theodore have repurposed production in PNG to produce PPE face masks, but there is little evidence that Australian brands are responding with similar levels of responsibility to workers in their offshore production sites.
Now is the time for not just urgent one time remedies but to rethink and rebuild value chains to be more resilient against adverse human rights impacts of crises such as Covid-19, addressing the practice of outsourcing economic risks to suppliers. A global call for action for a more sustainable, fairer and resilient garment industry is a key task of a recently formed international working group convened by the International Labour Organisation and made up of global union ITUC & employer organisations & brands. In tackling COVID-19 devastation on the garment industry and women garment workers requires important initiatives to rethink and rebuild garment supply chains to prevent and mitigate human rights abuses during and beyond Covid-19:
The recommendations and policy implications to mitigate the consequences of Covid-19 are not new or novel. They were repeated ad nauseum after the Rana Plaza disaster. Conducting human rights due diligence has been a mainstream tool for businesses to safeguard human rights in their value chains since the United Nations introduced the Principles for Business and Human Rights in 2011. Now is a good time to address the poor employment conditions further down the value chain that are exacerbated in economic crises.
What you can do, as a consumer
Many brands have been hit hard by Covid-19, with loss of sales and drop in share prices. Rebounding from Covid-19 will require they bring consumers on board. Consumers will have capacity to reward the brands who are signing on to a fairer and sustainable garment industry.
This crisis shows just how interconnected we are globally. While shutting borders may help stop the virus, it won’t help the women who make our clothes. No one should have to fear for their life when faced with unemployment. This crisis shows, again, how much structural, long-term change in industries like the fashion industry is needed. If we take the opportunity to act now, this can be a moment that propels the fashion industry into a more ethical and sustainable future.
Sara Tödt is a PhD candidate at RMIT School of Management focusing on gender and workers in global garment production networks.
Annie Delaney is a Senior Lecturer at RMIT School of Management. Annie’s research engages at the intersection of supply chain governance, gender and work rights. Annie leads BHRIGHT’s theme on work in supply chains.