As COVID-19 Ravages the Garment Industry, It’s Time for Consumers to Stand in Solidarity with the People Who Make Our Clothes


Photo by Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock.com

 

Visit the “Gap for Good” section of the Gap’s website, and you’ll be assured that, in the words of its founder, the company exists to “do more than sell clothes.” Gap is passionate about protecting the environment and empowering communities, we learn, so we can all feel good about swiping our credit cards in exchange for clothes that are “made responsibly and with respect for the planet that we all share.” There’s good reason for skepticism about such corporate self-promotion, of course. In fact, the fashion industry’s voluntary codes of “corporate social responsibility,” complete with advance notice of factory inspections and industry-funded “third-party verification,” have long been shown to be toothless, and a detailed 2018 report by Asia Floor Wage Alliance found gender-based violence to be rampant in the Gap’s supply chain.

If there was any remaining debate about the sincerity of global fashion’s commitment to the people and communities on which it depends, however, it was settled in the wake of the current COVID-19 crisis, as brands and buyers have responded with mass cancellations of in-process and already completed orders in an effort to minimize their own losses by pushing them onto factory owners and garment workers, the most vulnerable segments of the global fashion supply chain. The results have been catastrophic. According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), in Bangladesh alone 1,127 factories have reported order cancelations totaling over $3 billion and impacting over 2 million workers. More than 50 percent of factory owners in Bangladesh report having had “a lot” or “most” of their nearly or entirely completed orders canceled, according to a recent report by Penn State’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights, with over 70 percent reporting that buyers have refused to pay for raw materials already purchased in order to fulfill the since-canceled orders. Despite posting profits of over $6 billion in 2019, Gap, with its pledge to “do more than sell clothes,” i.e., to “do good,” is one of the many major brands listed as having not only canceled orders, but as having failed to respond to demands that it publicly commit to taking financial responsibility for them.

While these cancelations threaten the survival of Bangladesh’s garment sector, on which the country depends for over 80 percent of its export earnings, it is the sector’s estimated 4 million workers, mostly women, who are paying the heaviest price. Bangladesh’s garment workers, whose recent efforts to push the minimum wage beyond 8,000 Taka (U.S. $95) per month were met with violent repression by government and employers, live a hand-to-mouth existence in which wages are so far below the Asia Floor Wage Alliance’s living wage estimate of 42,280 Taka per month (U.S. $570) that in a 2019 survey of hundreds of Bangladeshi garment workers, over 90 percent reported that their wages were insufficient to adequately feed their families. For these workers, the unemployment has come in waves, as over 1 million garment workers in Bangladesh were fired or furloughed as a result of order cancellations, followed by the government shutdown of the industry on March 26 to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The hunger-inducing crisis of the sudden loss of wages has been exacerbated by incompetence, as the government’s last-minute extension of the industry shutdown, originally scheduled to be lifted on April 4, left stranded the tens of thousands of workers who had returned to Dhaka from the countryside, often traveling long distance on foot or in crowded vans and trucks in the expectation of a resumption of work. The shutdown is currently slated to last through May 5.

 

Photo by Zabed Hasnain Chowdhury/Shutterstock.com

Hunger and frustration have led to garment worker demonstrations across Dhaka, as workers demand March wages. The protests of April 16 ended with employer assurances that workers would receive their wages by the end of the month. The Bangladeshi government has announced a $588 million package to help factory owners pay their workers, but labor leaders insist that it’s not nearly enough, with Kalpona Akter, founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity stating that, “If Western buyers and owners don’t come forward to support workers, it’s going to be a disaster.” While Nike, H&M, Target and a handful of other major brands and retailers have distinguished themselves by pledging to pay for orders already placed, they are the all-too-rare exceptions to the industry rule in which 98 percent of surveyed factory owners who reported order cancellations stated that they received no assistance from buyers to make legally mandated payments to furloughed workers, despite the fact that many buyers have “responsible exit” policies which ostensibly commit them to avoiding precisely the kind of “cut and run” behavior that they are currently exhibiting.

While labor organizations implore government, employers, and foreign brands and buyers to respond to the crisis of survival facing Bangladeshi garment workers with the sense of urgency and scale of response required by the current emergency, it comes as no surprise that a chasm exists between the needs and demands of the workers, and the actions of the responsible parties. The coronavirus crisis, which plays out in the Bangladeshi garment sector as cost-shifting by foreign buyers and brands, imminent threat of bankruptcy for domestic manufactures, and hunger for garment workers, lays bare the structure of an industry in which the ruthless competition of thousands of factories is deftly exploited by the handful of major brands and retailers that control the market, allowing them to make demands on factory owners that result in profit margins so thin that forced overtime is required to meet targets, and wages that produce not just poverty, but hunger, are accepted as the industry standard. What makes the contrast between the Gap’s $6 billion in annual profits with the malnourishment of the workers who produce its clothes even more galling is how stunningly unnecessary it all is: the factory labor cost of a garment made in Bangladesh represents less than 1 percent of its retail price. Far from representing an economic impossibility, living wages for garment workers could be realized with price increases measured in quarters rather than dollars.

The industry structure which offers factory owners and garment workers so little leverage against the seemingly all-powerful brands and large retail chains in fact makes those brands and retailers vulnerable to consumer pressure, as their value, measured in billions, is entirely dependent upon shaping the consumption habits of consumers and maintaining the positive public image on which those habits depend. April 24 marks the 7th anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, which took the lives of over 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers, and focused the world’s attention on the cruelty of a system in which the super-profits of an industry are predicated upon a reckless disregard for the lives and well-being of the people who make its products. The revulsion of consumers in response to the crisis put genuine pressure on brands, retailers and the Bangladeshi government to take genuine steps to improve safety in Bangladesh’s garment sector.

The result was The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an agreement which committed signatories—led by industry heavies such as H&M, Indietex (Zara), and Abercrombie & Fitch—to independent inspections and binding remediation plans, and has resulted in a real but uneven record of improvement. (The Gap, incidentally, received The Public Eye’s 2013 “Worst Company of the Year” Award for its refusal to sign).

The current crisis of the coronavirus pandemic should serve as a wake-up call to concerned consumers that it’s time for us to once again stand in solidarity with the people who make our clothes, and augment the impact of the struggles taking place outside factory gates with our own ability to mar the images of the brands and retail outlets whose practices result in hunger and insecurity for garment workers regardless of whether they find themselves unemployed as a result of a global pandemic or working at the frenetic pace required in “normal times.” We can do this by partnering with grassroots garment worker organizations in a two-way exchange by which concerned consumers send small monthly donations in support of labor organizing—$5 goes much further in Bangladesh than it does here—while the labor organizations send regular reports on working conditions and their struggle to improve them. It will be our job to find creative ways to share these reports far and wide in an effort to replace the vapidity of a Gap “Be You, Be True” ad with something closer to the contents of the “Gender Based Violence in the Gap Garment Supply Chain” report in the public mind.

 

Photo by Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock.com

You can be a part of this effort by making a small contribution to the grassroots labor organization Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity. Founded by internationally renowned photographer and labor activist Taslima Akhter, Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity is currently providing face masks, food and hand sanitizer to garment workers while lobbying the government and employers’ associations to provide relief to garment workers. You can support their efforts by making a small contribution at https://www.gofundme.com/f/bangladesh-workers-solidarity-education-campaign. Contributors will receive regular updates from the front lines of the garment workers’ struggle in Bangladesh, and we will strategize together and with Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity on the best ways to use these updates to bring pressure to bear on the brands and retailers responsible for a system that derives profit from poverty. It is also crucial that we work to publicly shame the companies that reneged on their obligation to pay for orders already completed or in process, resulting in predictable crises of solvency and survival for over 1,000 factories and more than 1 million workers. You can help with this by signing the #PayUp petition, and circulating it widely among friends. It is our hope that our collective expression of solidarity in this time of crisis lays the foundation for an ongoing campaign which brings workers and consumers together in an effort to end the current brutality of the global fashion industry, and dismantle the façade that allows companies like the Gap, which cut and run from workers and communities in times of crisis, to hide behind empty promises of “doing good.”

 

Photo by Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock.com

 

Shahidur Rahman is a professor of Sociology in the Department of Economics and Social Sciences at Brac University in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the author of Broken Promises of Globalization: The Case of the Bangladesh Garment Industry. He can be reached at shahidur@bracu.ac.bd.

 

Jason Rhodes teaches in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. He can be reached at jrhode22@kennesaw.edu.