Cheap Clothes, High Cost: Garment Workers and COVID-19

Taslimah Akhtar was a 23 year old garment worker at the Windy Apparels factory in Bangladesh. She went into the factory on October 13, 2016 not knowing that she wouldn’t make it out alive. In fear of losing her job and despite her persistent fever, Akhtar reported to work. She fainted while sewing some garments. Instead of being transported to a hospital, Ahktar was sent back to her station by the factory manager. Not long after, Akhtar passed out again, but this time her heart stopped and she passed away. The Windy Group company, in charge of the Windy Apparels factory, manufactures clothing for brands like Zara, H&M and Primark. Brands that are household names. Brands that many of us have purchased from at some point in our lives.

Taslimah Akhtar’s story is a testament to the larger negligence and exploitation that has come to define the fast fashion industry. And unfortunately, her story is not uncommon.

Tailors in a Bangladeshi garment factory
Photo by International Labour Organization

The world’s top garment producing economies are heavily concentrated in South Asia, specifically in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Cambodia. Women comprise more than 70% of the workers in the garment industry and thus are disproportionately subjected to and impacted by the exploitation in this line of work. In fact, factory owners are more likely to hire women because they are viewed as easier to take advantage of. Exploitation in the industry is present in the form of wage theft, sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions and abuse. 

Consider the story of an expecting mother in Cambodia. The garment factory she worked at ended her contract because she was pregnant. To make matters worse, they refused to provide her with her legally required maternity benefits. This is the type of treatment that garment workers are routinely subjected to. This is the type of treatment that fashion companies do little to prevent. 

COVID-19 has only exacerbated garment workers’ exploitation.

After stay-at-home orders were issued, major fashion corporations began reducing the amount they purchased from manufacturers. A logical response, considering the inevitability of a decrease in sales. What wasn’t so logical, was that companies went so far as to cancel orders that were in the process of being, or already were, made. According to a report by the Center for Global Workers’ Rights at Penn State University, in Bangladesh alone more than half of the country’s manufacturers had a large portion of their in-process or already completed orders cancelled. Urban Outfitters is one such company that has refused to pay for the completed orders that it cancelled, despite its contractual obligations to manufacturers. 

Survey responses from Bangladeshi garment factories
Graph from report by the Center for Global Workers’ Rights

What does this mean for garment workers? For some, it meant a drastic reduction to an already meager wage. For many, it meant being fired or furloughed from factories without compensation for months of work. Wage theft that was already present in the industry has now been intensified by the virus.  

In response to fashion companies’ contractual dodging, activists and influencers launched the #PayUp campaign which pressured brands like Gap, ASOS and Primark to pay for their orders. What does it say about industry ethics that many of these companies wouldn’t have properly compensated manufacturers, and subsequently garment workers, without being pressured by public opinion?

As if the lack of payment was not bad enough, COVID has also presented an opportunity for factory owners to target and fire garment workers who are, or believed to be, part of a union. A recent publication by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre revealed that across India, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Cambodia, more than 4,000 unionised workers have been unfairly dismissed. A union organizer in Burma reported that all 738 union members had been fired from the Dihuali factory that produces clothing for the European brand Mango.The workers had been demanding safer working conditions in the midst of the pandemic. In Cambodia, a garment worker named Soy Sros was put in jail for 55 days after posting a message on Facebook that was critical of her factory’s targeting of union workers.

For factory owners, and by extension fast fashion corporations, unions are perceived as a threat because they’re an effective method of collective organizing that provide garment workers with bargaining power with which they can reject and end their exploitation. 

In response to these unfair dismissals and unpaid wages, activists, union members and garment workers have protested and spoken out in a number of countries. Pakistani garment workers organized in May to demand that they be paid for their uncompensated work. Tragically, the police showed up and opened fire against the hundreds of unarmed demonstrators that were present. Not too far away in Bangladesh, over 1,000 workers from the A-One Garments factory organized a sit-in protest in September to demand that they finally be paid for 8 months of work. Garment workers throughout the region have proven that they will not silently accept unjust and unfair treatment at the hands of factory owners and fast fashion companies. 

Fashion companies have long used garment factories’ status as third party contractors and vendors to prevent themselves from having to take responsibility for garment workers’ rights. Many of the companies who do take steps to end violations of labor rights, only do so after intense pressure from the public. The previously mentioned #PayUp campaign is one such example of the cycle that the fast fashion industry is stuck in. A violation of garment workers’ rights is revealed, workers protest, there is international public outcry and then brands work with factory owners to resolve the issue. But shouldn’t there be regulations and oversight in place that prevent these violations from ever occurring? 

Garment workers in Cambodia
Photo by International Labour Organization

The past few years have seen an increase in awareness of the unethical practices in the fast fashion industry. As a result there’s been a “thrift store renaissance”. Many consumers, myself included, are sourcing our clothing and accessories from secondhand shops in an effort to limit our participation in an exploitative and unjust industry. Lately however, I’ve been wondering, what does this really solve? While secondhand shopping is one way to tackle the huge environmental impact of the fashion industry, I don’t think it truly addresses the issue of unethical fast fashion business practices. Rather, it places the onus for ethical behavior on us, the consumers, instead of on the businesses who are enabling and allowing exploitation. 

The fast fashion industry must change. Collective action is necessary for any reform to occur because brands have shown time and again that they will not respond to the exploitation of garment workers without provocation from the public. Garment workers’ unions and labor rights groups throughout the entire world are working to protect the basic human rights of individuals who are integral to our daily lives, but all too often go unnoticed. As consumers, let’s support the work that these groups are doing to hold fast fashion companies accountable for their actions (or more accurately, their inaction).