Some of the most devastating impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are being felt by workers throughout global supply chains, including garment workers. Meg Lewis, Campaign Manager at Labour Behind the Label calls on brands to protect garment workers in their supply chain and how you can help.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spread rapidly across the world. While the virus itself may not discriminate between rich and poor, the health outcomes and economic ramifications certainly do. It is increasingly evident that whilst COVID-19 may affect all our lives, the most devastating impact is felt by those living in poverty. In the global garment industry, decades of poverty pay, low job security and poor working conditions mean that garment workers are already living in precarious conditions.

How is COVID-19 affecting garment workers?

COVID-19 is hitting the garment industry from several different directions. In January and February 2020, factory closures in China resulted in a lack of raw materials for factories in South East Asia to source for production. This caused the first wave of temporary factory closures, and many garment workers were sent home without pay.

In March and April, lockdowns in Europe and America saw retailers begin to close their shops and cancel orders from suppliers. In many cases, brands are cancelling orders that have already been produced, despite production costs already incurred by suppliers including raw materials and labour. These mass cancellations have resulted in a second wave of factory closures. For some suppliers, these closures will be temporary, but others will be forced into bankruptcy- resulting in massive job loss for garment workers. Big brands hold the power in global supply chains, and suppliers are forced into accepting low prices for goods. As a result, whilst big brands sustain the economic shock of COVID-19, many suppliers will not be able to.

A further crushing wave is hitting garment workers as COVID-19 takes hold in production countries, resulting in draconian lockdowns to implement social distancing. India’s domestic migrant workers, many of whom work in the garment industry, have protested that the countries’ lockdown measures have left them without food and money, and the promised government support has failed to materialise. The introduction of India’s lockdown triggered a mass exodus of domestic migrant workers, desperate to leave urban areas where they could no longer afford shelter or food. In Cambodia, Khmer New Year celebrations were cancelled, and a travel ban issued. Instead of spending holidays with family, garment workers were forced to return to factories, despite inadequate measures to prevent them from being infected at work.

From poverty wages and job insecurity, to global supply chains which embody the unequal power dynamics between big brands and suppliers, COVID-19 is exposing the shameful reaility of an industry which has generated huge profits for CEOs and shareholders, with little regard for the (mainly women) workers who make their clothes. Brands have made huge profits by relying on a model which pays garment workers poverty wages and requires them to work in unsafe conditions. This same model has made it impossible for garment workers to put aside savings for an emergency such as this, and to prioritise their safety over their employment. That is why it is vital that brands now step up and protect the workers they have exploited for so long.

How are brands responding?

The actions of brands during this crisis, will have a huge impact on the lives of millions of garment workers for many years to come. Unfortunately, we are seeing many brands act in ways that will have a devastating impact. The Workers’ Rights Consortium estimated that global brands have cancelled over £20bn of orders worldwide. Arcadia Group, which owns brands Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge is estimated to have cancelled over £100million of existing clothing orders. Asda is cancelling a quarter of orders with clothing suppliers and have announced they will only pay a fraction of costs for cancelled orders- 30% of the order value for those that have not yet been finished, and 50% for those that have. Cancellations and reduced payments do not take into account the costs that suppliers will have already incurred through purchasing raw material, production and labour costs. The fact that brands can cancel orders or refuse full payment for completed orders, shines a spotlight on supply chains that have been designed to maintain the power imbalance between brands and suppliers.

Simply put, if brands don’t pay, suppliers are left to foot the bill they can ill-afford.

Honouring existing orders is the absolute minimum that we should expect of brands. Brands are well aware of systematic inequalities in supply chains and have done little more than lip-service to address them over past decades. Rather than taking meaningful action to ensure that workers can afford to live in dignity, brands have zealously pushed further cost-reduction onto suppliers, knowing that this will ultimately push down workers wages, whilst increasing production targets. This means that brands have not only a legal responsibility, but a moral obligation to provide emergency funding to suppliers and workers, providing them with a financial buffer to whether the crisis.

A post-pandemic garment industry

Noami Klein often refers to a quote of Milton Friedman’s, which summarises what Klein calls the Shock Doctrine: “Only a crisis‐actual or perceived‐produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

Throughout history, there are countless examples of right-wing think tanks and governments exploiting public disorientation following a crisis to push through pro-corporate policies, which favour profit over people.

But the past need not define the future. Pro-corporate policies are not the only ideas that we have ‘lying around’. If it is true that a crisis can produce real change, it is now more important than ever to mobilise and push for the change that we want to see in the world. In the post-pandemic future, it will not be acceptable to simply rebuild the garment industry to its former state.

We can and we must strive for better.

Imagine a garment industry where all workers are paid a living wage so that they can support their families and live with dignity. Where production and consumption are greatly reduced in a move which benefits both the planet and working conditions for those who make our clothes.

This future is possible if brands negotiate and sign enforceable agreement with unions and governments, which stipulate higher (and fairer) prices to enable the payment of living wages. The need for brands to support social protection systems in the countries they use for production has never been stronger. We must redistribute value chains in order to redress the huge inequalities between CEOs, suppliers and workers. Now is the time to call on businesses to prioritise both people and the planet before profit, for a future that works for all of us.

Sign Labour Behind the Labels petition

We have launched a new petition to put pressure on seven of the biggest UK brands to step up and protect all the workers in their supply chain. Together we are strong. We need you to send the message loud and clear to some of the biggest UK brands, calling on them to protect the millions of workers in their supply chains.

Sign the petition here