The Garment Industry Under Lockdown: A Look Into the Devastating Consequences for Workers

Source: BRIDGR Insights

Economies and industries were all hit hard by lockdown measures installed in many countries. And the fashion industry may have been hit even harder than others.

By Atiya Chowdhury

Following the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, many industries, specifically the clothing industry, have suffered a financial loss due to the widely enforced lockdown. Indeed, as the demand for clothing significantly decreased, many brands around the world have had to temporarily close their shops and manufacturing factories. However, although multinational corporations are losing big, the workers are the ones bearing the harshest brunt of the financial hit, left with no work and forced to cope with the consequences. 

High street fashion outlets, such as H&M and Zara, have closed their garment factories in Bangladesh. This decision has been met with backlash as it has resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs for workers in the capital Dhaka. The country has seen many economic slumps within the past few years and remains in a very precarious state, which means that many of these now unemployed people are not receiving any aid from the government. Most of the workers who have been made redundant are now left worrying about how they will pay for food and provide for their families.

The cancellation of garment orders has affected Bangladesh severely as the country is the top garment exporter in the world, second to China, and relies heavily on European and American orders to support its economy. Statistics show that 83% of Bangladesh’s revenue from exports are linked to the garment industry, the equivalent of more than $32 billion a year. The garment industry in Bangladesh has over four million workers, most of whom are women. Thus, the closure of factories threatens to affect the most precarious and marginalised group in the country—women. 

Many have condemned Western clothing brands for their lack of moral responsibility, taking to social media to denounce brands and refusing to buy from them anymore. Primark has notably been criticised for cancelling orders despite the garments having been already made by workers. This means that these labourers are not being compensated for the work they have already done. Human Rights Watch joined in to deplore these brands’ irresponsible and unscrupulous behaviour.

Facing growing pressure and scrutiny, brands such as H&M and Zara have paid in full the existing orders from clothing manufacturers. However, this small achievement has not solved the situation entirely. The cancellation of orders is continuing to have a devastating effect on workers. A survey by the Centre for Global Workers’ Rights has shown that due to the cancellation of orders, buyers are refusing to pay for the cost of production and raw materials which had already been purchased by the suppliers.  As a result of this, more than two million garment workers in Bangladesh are at risk of losing their jobs. 

As many factory owners prepare for what they deem as ‘certain ruin’, solutions are being thought of to help mitigate the force of this financial slump. Zara and H&M have promised to pay for all orders which have been made or are still in production. A body of UN workers, known as The International Labour Organisation, has set up a group of retailers, factory owners and workers to try and find a solution to the garment industry crisis.

However, the solutions do not bring much hope to the workers as the garment industry has recently been exempted from the nationwide lockdown which had been in full force since 26th of March in Bangladesh. Employees are now going into work with the fear of contracting the virus as it is hard to maintain social distancing within factories. Despite some factories providing PPE, many workers have reported that factory owners are not complying with the hygiene standards. 20,000 workers garment workers are now back in the factories, most of whom are fearfully going to work each day. 

While the multinational corporations appear to have suffered in terms of business, it seems that the ripples of the decision to close factories have had the biggest impact on these Bangladeshi labourers who must now choose between sacrificing their health to survive financially or sacrificing their livelihood to survive the pandemic.    

Atiya Chowdhury is a second year English Literature student at the University of Surrey.

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