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One year later: How are garment workers and suppliers faring since the Covid-19 pandemic started?

By Simone Preuss

Mar. 4, 2021

Business

A recent panel to assess the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on garment workers and suppliers revealed that one year later, not all is well in the world of fashion. In fact, research shows that garment workers are going hungry, brands are asking for steep discounts on new orders, and wages to factory workers are going down; all of this is happening despite the industry's promise of change and building back better.

While key voices in the labor rights movement and the #PayUp campaign with the leading suppliers and NGOs were present, not one representative of an international fashion brand or retailer took part in the discussion. This was not for lack of an invitation - in fact, the organisers contacted all the major players, but they were unanimous in their decision not to participate.

Brands and retailers need to take responsibility

“Brands and retailers are not responsible for the pandemic of course, but they are responsible for their responses. Very few workers had savings, in fact, were in debt and so were the suppliers. Many international buyers took advantage, asked for higher price concessions and paid even more slowly,” summed up Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium.

“Brands and retailers have failed to step up. While they have benefited from rescue packages and bail-out programs, no major brand or retailer has stepped up. There is a vast discrepancy between rhetoric and actual behaviour,” added Nova.

Remake founder and CEO Ayesha Barenblat pointed to research by the Clean Clothes Campaign that found that 3 million US dollars are in owned wages and that none of the large brands - many of which have recorded profits during the crisis - has come forward to do something about it. This has had dire consequences for the weakest link in the supply chain, women workers.

Women workers pay the brunt

“Women are eating one meal instead of two, they get no protein because they cannot afford it. They are forced to pull children out of school because they cannot afford school fees. Pregnant women are the first ones to be fired and workers in general are put on short-term contracts. There is a hiring and firing going on to avoid paying into safety nets,” summed up Barenblat the grim situation for women workers.

“This is the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. But supply chains are not broken, they are built in such a way that they are pushing all risk onto suppliers,” she added. “It is completely irrational from an economic standpoint,” agreed Nova. “There is probably no other industry where a 20-million-dollar company - a supplier - fronts orders for a 20-billion-dollar company - the buyer. “

Why do we have this scenario? “Simply because the buyers have the power,” explained Nova. “And this power imbalance manifests in payment terms. Suppliers front the financial costs, which leads to chronic cash flow difficulties. So when a crisis like the current one hits, there is very little or nothing to fall back on.”

Suppliers who take care of their employees fare better

But not all suppliers operate this way. Pakistan-based denim fabric and garment manufacturer Crescent Bahümán is located 100 kilometers away from the nearest major town. Thus, it is campus living for the 35,000 residents who work at Crescent Bahümán. “We had to manage our daily affairs, we were shut down for a month by the government but we were spared the brunt of the pandemic because we do not have as many clients,” recounted Zaki Saleemi, vice president of Crescent Bahümán.

Pakistan’s first vertically integrated denim facility makes products for eight to ten customers on any given day and produces about one million jeans or 1.5 million meters of fabric a month. “Our key customer who accounts for 50 percent of our business and who we have been working with for 23 years was extremely understanding,” said Saleemi. Yet, a year later, the company is still in recovery mode: Though capacity is back up to 100 percent after it dropped to about 70 percent, the flow of orders is not the same yet.

“There is a lot still to tackle and right now, we are focused on women’s employment and sustainability. We got time to introspect during the lockdown and we asked ourselves, ‘how do we want to spend the next 5 years? Do we want to invest in technology, increase capacity?’ We are in reset mode as of now but we put people in the center, it is a people-focused business, and we will be able to weather it better than others,” Saleemi is sure.

What are the solutions?

A reset and putting workers in the center of the issue seems the need of the hour but “no one is willing to understand the worker’s position as an important stakeholder,” stated Khalid Mahmood, director of Pakistani worker rights NGO Labour Education Foundation (LEF). “There are some suppliers like Crescent Bahümán that take better care of their employees but that is not the norm.”

“Right now in Pakistan, one of the most difficult countries in terms of labour rights, the situation is piece-rate and contract work for employees with 12-hour-shifts but no overtime paid. There is a lack of freedom of association and threats and violence against workers who try to organise,” Mahmood describes the situation.

“The lockdown was enforced by the end of March and work resumed by end of May. During that time, workers were paid only half their wages and afterwards, many were not asked to come back. One factory threw out 3,000 permanent workers and then asked some of them back on contract work or half the piece rate,” he added.

This has had a major impact on workers’ lives who have to fend for even the most basic necessities. They have to buy from shopkeepers on loan or borrow money from relatives. Children bear the brunt too, as there is no money for school.

What is the solution for the garment industry? How can it go forward? “Voluntary self-regulation does not work, instead forceable agreements that obligate brands and retailers that there are good wages and fair conditions with suppliers are needed,” said Nova, adding that “this has worked in Bangladesh under the Accord.”

“Thirty years of auditing has not brought us far enough,” agreed Barenblat. “We need a worker-centric blueprint. We need fair wages and binding agreements.”

“International labour rights conventions should be respected,” added Mahmood. “Every big brand is represented in the factories; they need to take responsibility. A major demand from the workers’ side is fair wages, also freedom of association and collective bargaining as well as safety, at least at medium and small enterprises. Big factories have better conditions in terms of safety.”

And last but not least, it should not be forgotten that factories - big or small - need to step up their game when it comes to preventing Covid-19 outbreaks. Factories are literally hotbeds for infection given the already high temperatures and thus difficulty with wearing masks and breathing through them all day. Also, sanitary measures and social distancing need to be stepped up to make an already bad situation not even worse.

Images: Clean Clothes Campaign / Remake