Apr 13th, 2020, 03:05 PM

COVID-19: Fashion Supply Chain Workers are More Vulnerable than Ever

By Abdel Benakki
Garment factory workers in Lao PDR. Credits: Flicker
From massive layoffs to sudden terminations and inadequate social safety nets; garment workers are now in the frontline of what many predict as a global recession due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the last few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world as we know it. Almost 4 billion people have been ordered by governments across the globe to quarantine in a series of attempts aimed at slowing the propagation of the virus, bringing most of the world’s economy to a stuttering halt.

The severe impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on economic prospects will be multi-industrial, and that includes the fashion industry. According to Vogue Business, the pandemic could cause a €40 billion decline in luxury sales in 2020. Fast-fashion giants like Zara has reportedly closed 51 percent of its 7,489 stores and H&M has closed 3,441 stores out of its 5,062 stores

While fashion giants are closing stores and halting production, supply chain workers on the other end are facing massive precarious economic conditions threatening their livelihoods. According to data from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association and a report from Penn State University’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights and the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC): Bangladesh garment manufacturers are set to lose more than $3 billion in orders because of the outbreak. According to the same reports, this disruption has caused more than a million garment workers to lose their jobs or to be furloughed. 

Chart Made with data compiled from the BGMEA & the WRC report

Nazma Akter, General Secretary and Executive Director of the Awaj Foundation, wrote to Peacock Plume, “These workers now don’t know how they will take care of their families in the coming days – how they will manage costs for food, rent, and other necessities.” She affirmed that many workers have seen their factories shut down, while some of them were not given any payments. She added, “They can’t even imagine what they’ll do if they or a family member needs medical treatment for the Coronavirus. The meager income these workers earned was barely enough to cover their living costs, and as a result, they have little to no savings set aside to deal with a crisis such as this”.

Meanwhile, we are seeing the same ramifications across Asia’s garment industry affecting 10,000 garment workers in Cambodia for instance. The global economic dimensions of the current global pandemic only indicate that similar scenarios will follow in countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, and India.

Supply chain workers in developing nations are facing unprecedented and extremely precarious conditions due to the pandemic, and garment workers are no exception. The Fair-Wear foundation, a foundation working for a more ethical garment industry, explains that garment workers face a delicate situation from trying to avoid contracting the virus to having to go to work to feed their families. When factories close, the hardest hit are garment workers because they are left with no income. Many of these factories are in developing nations where supply chain workers have little to no access to health care or adequate social security. 

According to PennState's Center for Global Workers Rights report, many fast fashion giants have committed to paying for the merchandise already in production. A spokesperson from Inditex (Zara) said, “Inditex is committed to working with its suppliers through the impacts of COVID-19…We are fulfilling all our responsibilities to our suppliers by ensuring that all orders that have been produced or are currently in production are completely paid according to the original payment terms”.

While it is important to recognize that big and small brands are set to face huge financial challenges because of the global outbreak; this is also a moment where the global population can show empathy and solidarity. In this spirit, Fashion Revolution, a leading global organization for sustainable and ethical fashion, published a few steps that consumers and brands can take to help bring awareness to the burden faced by garment workers. 

Many are wondering what could this all mean for the global supply chain. Is this the end of globalization as we know it? Will this be the tipping point for brands to start sourcing out in more ethical and sustainable ways?.. Only time will tell us.