Whilst we are familiar with news about businesses in the UK being forced to close, and struggling to stay afloat during this horrendous period, we don't hear much about what that means for the supply chains that sit behind these businesses - including some of the most famous businesses in the fashion industry.
It's no surprise really, given garment workers in the fast fashion industry are some of the most vulnerable workers in the world with the fewest rights and the poorest paid. Nonetheless, it really stings when it's the most vulnerable individuals who are suffering the most from our high streets coming to a standstill.
In Bangladesh, the world's epicentre of garment workers (4,000,000 workers in 4,000 factories), 58% of factories have been forced to close completely due to large brands in the West cancelling or delaying large orders. Whilst H&M is said to have paid for all orders to date, other global brands including C&A and Intidex (Zara) are supposedly refusing to pay for items that have already been produced but are no longer wanted or needed due to the retail slowdown. This leaves Bangladeshi factory owners (who are the employers of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women) hugely out of pocket, and unable to support their staff. According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), $1.4 billion worth of orders have been cancelled and another $1.8 billion worth have been put on hold as of this week due to the pandemic. As a result, just in the four days between 21st and 25th March, at least 1 million garment workers have been fired or furloughed due to a lack of work, 72% of which were sent home without being paid.
Mark Anner, Pennsylvania State University's Director at the Center for Global Workers' Rights, said: “The responsible approach is for [international] brands and retailers to find ways to access lines of credits or other forms of government support to cover their obligations to supplier factories so that they can cover their expenses and pay their workers in order to avoid sending millions of workers home with no ability to put food on the table let alone cover medical expenses.”
In a small but hugely positive step last week, Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina announced bailout worth $590 million. Many members of the Bangladeshi government are factory owners, but the funds, Prime Minister Hasina said, must be used as salaries and allowances for workers only.
Closer to home, we have the opposite situation of garment workers in the UK being forced to come to work or risk losing their incomes altogether. Brands such as ASOS and Boohoo are refusing to furlough staff, and trying to keep open to service their online demand. The GMB Union has accused ASOS of "playing Russian roulette" with people's lives, whilst a worker themselves has said in criticism "If one single worker (contracts) coronavirus all warehouse workers will get it. We are not key workers.....we are used just for profit." Similarly, workers in Boohoo's warehouse in Burnley have claimed to Lancashire Live this week that they'll be forced to work "until someone dies". Boohoo had asked their entire workforce including stylists and models to still report to work as normal. Both ASOS and Boohoo leadership have refuted these claims as "rubbish", scaremongering and gossip. The fact remains however, that worker desks are within 1m of each other with over 1,000 people in one space. It simply can't be right given the drastic measures we are taking in every other industry and aspect of society.
The sad reality is that whilst Covid-19 has reminded us so much about community and humanity, it has also shone a horrible bright light on how so many businesses continue to put profits before people. If only these fast fashion brands could remember that without these garment workers, they'd have no product to sell at all.