How Covid Affected Garment Workers Globally

The virus has hurt some groups more than others. Here’s how Covid has affected garment workers across the world

By Roberta Fabroccino

In the span of a few months, our world has changed beyond recognition. Our habits, plans, and aspirations have been altered by arguably the most impactful historic event in generations.

While most of us have been very hard hit by lockdowns, losing our businesses, jobs and sometimes, tragically, even our will to live, it seems the poorest have been hit hardest. And some of the poorest people around the globe are garment workers.

The fashion industry has always treated these workers poorly. The 2013 Rana Plaza collapse exposed the world to the atrocities of the fashion industry. Since then, garment workers’ working conditions have somewhat improved, thanks to global awareness of their plight. Milestones such as the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety act were passed. And for awhile, it seemed that justice for those who make our clothes may be slowly coming about.

But since we here in the developed world have less money to spend, and fewer places to wear nice clothes, garment workers have been hit especially hard by falling fashion demand.

Here, we take an in-depth look on how Covid has affected garment workers around the world.

How Covid impacted global garment workers

How Covid Has Affected Garment Workers Globally

There can be little doubt that worldwide, lockdowns due to Coronavirus are exacerbating pre-existing socioeconomic inequalities at an unprecedented rate. The ILO, FAO, IFAD, and WHO have all affirmed in a joint statement that tens of millions of people are facing the risk of falling into extreme poverty, and the number of malnourished people was expected to rise to 132 million by the end of 2020.

The UN’s Framework for the Immediate Socioeconomic Response to the COVID-19 Crisis stated that: The COVID-19 pandemic is far more than a health crisis: it is affecting societies and economies at their core. While the impact of the pandemic will vary from country to country, it will most likely increase poverty and inequalities at a global scale.” 

The fashion industry suffered greatly due to lockdowns. In the 2nd quarter of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019, retail sales dropped by 43.5 percent. This is mainly attributed to the facts that not only were consumers not free to go out and shop, but even if they could, the lack of social events they could attend meant that there were far fewer clothing purchases made.

Consequently, the total sales volume in October 2020 for the textiles and clothing category was 9.5 % below the volume reached in February before the COVID-19 crisis. Even the largest retailers took a hit: J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, Aldo, and Centric Brands have all filed for bankruptcy.

No demand, no orders, no pay?

As fewer people purchased new clothes, a discrepancy between demand and production arose. Many big clothing brands and retailers responded to this issue by offloading the risk down the supply chain and taking no responsibility for the financially devastated factories. They cancelled orders and refused to pay for the orders they already placed, even when the factories had already carried out the orders’ production.

In Bangladesh alone, Western fashion brands cancelled roughly $1.5 billion of garment orders due to the pandemic outbreak. This situation put the people down the supply chain under a massive financial strain. They were forced to cover for fabric and other production costs themselves.

AS a result, many factory owners have not paid workers’ wages, since they’ve not been paid by the retailers who ordered the garments. This led to over a million Bangladeshi garment workers being fired or sent home without pay. In Myanmar, roughly 25,000 garment workers from more than 40 factories were fired because of COVID-19.

In March 2020, a global coalition of garment workers, workers’ rights groups, NGOs, and fashion activists founded the #PayUp campaign. They were successful in getting some companies to pay for orders they had already placed. But since then, the lockdowns have continued and the situation for the fashion industry has become even more dire.

Worse off than ever

While some have lauded the fact that there was less consumption overall during the lockdowns, and praised the fact that pollution in the West was reduced, they don’t seem to have considered the knock-on effects of that. Namely, that millions of people around the world are now out of a job and are even facing possible starvation.

Think that sounds a bit dramatic? Then consider this. In Bangladesh alone, about 43% of female garment workers now don’t have enough to eat and are suffering from serious malnutrition.  In short, Covid has affected garment workers globally by almost starving them to death. In attempt to aid their situation, textile workers around the world staged huge protests in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, and India. 

But the reality is this. Without the demand for clothing, there’s little hope these people will ever be employed in the garment industry again. 

Strong, reliable, and inhuman

But it’s not only a lack of orders that is threatening garment workers. It’s technology, too.

Artificial intelligence has become more popular after the pandemic. Since production lines were interrupted by Covid 19, many manufacturers are turning to machines to produce our clothing. Why? They’re considered to be more ‘reliable’ than biological beings. They’re also far cheaper to use in the long run. And of course, they don’t demand rights or form unions.

A shift towards AI will only exacerbate ever-increasing global unemployment rates. Given the fact that garment workers are generally under-educated and under-skilled, there are few alternatives for them to make a living.

What we can do

There can be little doubt that Covid has affected garment workers in the worst ways imaginable. A lack of demand has killed off their jobs. Since they have few other usable skills and no money to retrain and ‘reinvent’ themselves, it’s hard to imagine how the people who make our clothes could be re-employed en masse. And that’s especially true given the fact that many of their jobs will very likely soon be taken over by AI and machines.

So, what can we do to help?

For one, ethical fashionistas should shun any clothing made by AI. Look for brands that are proudly handmade. 

Secondly, we DO need to increase demand. Of course, we understand here at Eluxe that constantly producing new goods is detrimental to the planet. But how about this: what if retailers created new demand for old clothing by going circular? What if we all donated (or even sold) our old clothes to high street brands, who then sent those clothes to garment workers to re-work into new items? Alternatively, they could extract and recycle the very fibres of those clothes to create new fibres, and then new clothes. In short, shifting towards a more circular economy and creating demand for circularly-produced clothing could both save the planet, and the lives of garment workers around the world.

Do you know of any other ways relating to how Covid has affected garment workers globally? Let us know in the comments, below!

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