Hanging by a thread? COVID-19 and garment workers

Seven years on from the Rana Plaza disaster in which 1,134 people tragically lost their lives, garment workers are still at risk.  As companies scramble to limit financial damage during the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of vulnerable people living in countries without a social safety net are bearing the brunt of the crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only an immediate health crisis, but also an economic one. UK brands are facing unprecedented financial pressure as lockdown measures force store closures across the country.

But as some brands rightly honour their existing contracts with their suppliers, others are cancelling orders or refusing to pay for orders already completed. This comes at a high price for the workers around the world producing these clothes.

The Arcadia Group, for instance – owning big UK clothing brands like Topshop – cancelled over £100 million worth of orders, leaving thousands of garment workers without an income.

British Brands and Bangladesh

The Rana Plaza disaster served as wake-up call for the garment industry, with many British brands pledging to work together to improve factory standards. But in the context of the pandemic, British businesses have been implicated in a new crisis.

Many brands have abandoned orders or demanded price-cuts, in a financial blow to Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest apparel producer. This has left millions of garment workers without jobs or an income for work already done.

As a consequence, many garment workers in countries without social safety nets, and lacking financial savings, now face destitution.

Even the midst of the global health crisis, garment workers across Bangladesh have been heading to the streets in protest – despite national lockdown – as factories halt pay for workers after order cancellations.

Doing better business?

Businesses have a responsibility towards their workers and so, the immediate urgency of this pandemic must not justify abandoning contracts, reducing the rights of millions of vulnerable garment workers in low-wage economies like Bangladesh.

Though some UK brands have taken welcomed steps, voluntary and business-led initiatives may not go far enough to support workers during and after this pandemic.

British retailer Primark, for instance, announced a fund to help pay workers’ wages in Bangladesh after it was criticised for cancelling or suspending £256m worth of orders. But as this fund is conditional on Government support, it fails to honour the company’s responsibility towards its garment suppliers and workers.

In light of this irregularity, CORE signed on to a letter to the Sunday Times calling for UK fashion retailers to put on public record whether they are honouring their contracts. Traidcraft Exchange are also asking people to write to brands to demand they protect workers in this period.

Protecting garment workers post-crisis

The ongoing crisis has exposed the economic vulnerability of UK businesses to crises, but also the ongoing vulnerability of the workers around the world who sustain businesses’ supply chains.

Though there were some improvements in factory safety after Rana Plaza, some necessary lessons have not been learnt. Many workers remain on low incomes and precarious contracts, largely due to the demands for faster, cheaper clothes by Western brands. Many of these workers’ livelihoods now hang by a thread.

Following the COVID-19 crisis, non-negotiable standards protecting workers’ rights and driving more sustainable and resilient supply chains must be implemented by Government.

This could partly be achieved by mandatory human rights due diligence requiring that companies identify and prevent negative impacts on human rights, workers’ rights and the environment in supply chains. British businesses should then be held to account in UK courts when they fail to act.

Similar legislation is already progressing in the EU, with some MEPs calling for due diligence to include companies’ responses to the adverse impacts of order cancellations on workers if a similar health crisis occurred again.

In a ‘war’ against an invisible enemy, we must not lose sight of the visible victims in supply chains – at present and looking forward.