Garment Industry Workers Seek International Solidarity in Wake of COVID-19

Ed. Note: Seven years after the devastating Rana Plaza garment factory collapse that killed more than a thousand people in the Dhaka District of Bangladesh and 109 years after the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the United States, garment workers still face perilous conditions. With COVID-19, the dangers they face have increased. Inside the factories, crowded, unsafe conditions; outside, starvation.

Visit the “Gap for Good” section of the Gap’s website, and you’ll be assured that the company exists to “do more than sell clothes.”  In fact, we learn, Gap is passionate about protecting the environment and empowering communities, 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.”  If you’re skeptical about such corporate self-promotion, you have good reason.  The fashion industry’s voluntary codes of “corporate social responsibility” 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. 

Any doubts about the sincerity of global fashion’s commitment to the people and communities on which it depends vanished in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, as brands and buyers responded with mass cancellations of in-process and already completed orders in an effort to push their own losses 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 1082 factories have reported order cancellations totalling over $3 billion and impacting over two million workers.  More than 50% of factory owners in Bangladesh report having had “a lot” or “most” of their nearly or entirely completed orders cancelled, according to a recent report by Penn State’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights, with over 70% reporting that buyers have refused to pay for raw materials already purchased in order to fulfill the since-cancelled orders.  Despite posting profits of over $6 billion in 2019, Gap is one of the many major brands listed as having not only cancelled orders, but as having failed to respond to demands that it publicly commit to taking financial responsibility for them.  

While these cancellations threaten the survival of Bangladesh’s garment sector, on which the country depends for over 80% of its export earnings, it is the sector’s estimated four million workers, mostly women, who are paying the heaviest price.  Bangladesh’s garment workers, whose recent efforts to push the minimum wage beyond 8000 Taka (US $95) per month were met with violent repression by the 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 (US $570) that in a 2019 survey of hundreds of Bangladeshi garment workers, over 90% reported that their wages were insufficient to adequately feed their families.  For these workers, the unemployment has come in waves, as over one 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 shutdown is currently slated to last through May 5, though factories have recently reopened in defiance of the shutdown, in response to pressure from brands and retailers.  

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 unnecessary it is:  the factory labor cost of a garment made in Bangladesh represents less than 1% of its retail price.  Far from being an economic impossibility, living wages for garment workers could be realized with price increases measured in quarters rather than dollars.  

  The current crisis of the coronavirus pandemic should serve as a wake-up call to concerned consumers that it’s time for us to 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. 

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 brutality of the global fashion industry, and dismantle the façade that allows companies like the Gap to hide behind empty promises of “doing good.”

The authors invite readers to click here to make a small donation to the grassroots organization Bangladesh Garment Worker Solidarity and receive regular reports and action items from the front lines of the struggle for garment workers’ rights, and here to sign the petition demanding that companies like the Gap #PayUp for the orders they’ve cancelled, and act responsibly toward workers during this time of crisis.