Let us pretend that you bought a 100% cotton t-shirt at H&M. The shirt was shipped from India, one of the most competitive countries in garment production due to its extremely cheap labour. The cotton used to make your shirt was provided by poor farmers in the north region of India. This is a simplified example of the production cycle of your clothes. Garment workers, often originating from Asian countries, are hired by big fashion brands to confect clothes according to orders, which vary according to demand. This production cycle is fragile and is virtually always in motion.
However, since the pandemic interfered with non-essential businesses in March, the production cycle has been disrupted, deteriorating this already flawed system. In other words, the supply chain was put to a halt due to the closure of shops worldwide. This is how vulnerable communities suffered as collateral damage.
The fashion industry relies mainly on foreign suppliers to satisfy their clothing demands for the following key reasons:
The labour is very cheap in countries such as Bangladesh, India, China, etc. The minimum wage is below the living wage, meaning that the salary garment workers have is not enough to cover their essential expenses such as food, rent, health expenses, etc. This keeps garment workers in a cycle of poverty because they have barely enough money to survive. In order to make enough money, they often have to work 12 hours per day, 6 days per week(Barenblat).
Laws concerning safety and labour policies in foreign countries are not as strict as laws in Canada, or other first-world countries. These laws ensure the safety and wellness of the workers and population. Countries like Bangladesh depend on big brands to function, which is why they adapt their laws to please the growing demand in the clothing sector. As a result, the working conditions for garment workers are tragic: safety protocols are not respected and work environments are not safe. An unreluctant proof of the lack of accountability of these fashion brands is the Rana Plaza incident in 2013, where a factory crumbled, resulting in hundreds of casualties and thousands of injured workers, many of who suffered serious injuries that left them unable to ever work again(SudOuest and AFP).
Evidently, these garment workers are very exposed to a crisis like the one we are currently living in. The events that have been happening since March have caused panic in the retail industry. Consequently, major clothing brands stopped their orders from their suppliers overseas. Others postponed payments due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, thousands of garment workers overseas were not paid. According to Penn State Center for Global Workers’ Rights, ¼ of garment workers in Bangladesh were fired in April(Frayer). This is why they protested in Dhaka, ignoring the physical distancing rules: They did not have another choice; they did not have money to survive(TRT World). Factories operating with brands, such as Boohoo and Asos, were even forcing their employees to work, despite the knowledge that they had tested positive for COVID-19(Roberts-Islam). Retailers were also outsourcing their orders to cheaper suppliers(Paton).
Other organizations, such as Remake, rose awareness about this issue with campaigns such as #PAYUP and #SHAREYOURPROFITS, demanding that brands fulfill their duty to pay their overseas workers struggling to make ends meet.
The reason why fashion brands can get away with this is because of their lack of transparency. If these companies had to be transparent, it would be easier to hold them accountable for their actions. There is a new transparency report made by fashionrevolution.org, which classifies 250 of the biggest fashion brands in the industry according to their transparency. None of these companies score above 80%, and most of them are situated below 50%(Fashion Revolution). However, it is important to keep in mind that transparency does not necessarily mean that the brand is ethical or sustainable; it just means the client has enough information to judge the brand for themselves. A simple way to indirectly help garment workers is by getting informed. Regularly ask yourself questions such as “where do my clothes come from?” and “who made my clothes?”. Use your purchasing power to make a statement.
To learn more about sustainable/ ethical fashion:
To learn more about transparency in the fashion industry:
Barenblat, Ayesha. Made In Sri Lanka. 2018, https://remake.world/films/made-in-sri-lanka/.
Fashion Revolution. FASHION TRANSPARENCY INDEX 2020. p. 70, https://www.fashionrevolution.org/about/transparency/. Accessed 10 Feb. 2021.
Frayer, Lauren. “1 Million Bangladeshi Garment Workers Lose Jobs Amid COVID-19 Economic Fallout.” NPR.Org, 3 Apr. 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/03/826617334/1-million-bangladeshi-garment-workers-lose-jobs-amid-covid-19-economic-fallout.
Paton, Elizabeth. Bangladesh Garment Workers Face Ruin Due to Coronavirus – The New York Times. 31 Mar. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/31/fashion/coronavirus-bangladesh.html.
Roberts-Islam, Brooke. Why Does The Fashion Industry Care Less About Garment Workers In Other Countries? 30 July 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/brookerobertsislam/2020/07/30/why-does-the-fashion-industry-care-less-about-garment-workers-in-other-countries/?sh=1fe808a82c0d.
SudOuest, and AFP. “Effondrement meurtrier de l’usine de textile au Bangladesh : où en est-on un an après ?” SudOuest.fr, 23 Apr. 2014, https://www.sudouest.fr/2014/04/22/effondrement-meurtrier-d-une-usine-de-textile-au-bangladesh-ou-en-est-on-un-an-apres-1532868-4803.php.
TRT World. Bangladesh Garment Workers Protest Retailer Cutbacks. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TV_CoVjFSeQ.