Clothing brands fail to support their workers amid Covid-19 pandemic
The infamous collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013 brought to light corporations’ widespread negligence around their overseas operations – since then, major brands have stepped up to announce new and unprecedented corporate social responsibility schemes. Nike has committed to ensuring safe workplace measures such as established emergency routes and fire escapes;1 Gap has mandated procedures to prohibit child labor,2 and over 220 brands have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh which details a host of worker protection measures.3
However, the notion that corporate accountability and workplace safeguarding have become standard practice is deeply fallacious. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled the empty promises made by brands claiming to protect the well-being of their employees and exposed corporations’ willingness to engage in poor business practices during periods of economic hardship.
Cancelled orders and unpaid wages
Widespread store closures due to worldwide quarantining have caused clothing consumption across the Western Hemisphere to rapidly decline.4 Consequently, brands such as Topshop, C&A, and Urban Outfitters are calling on their manufacturers to cancel apparel orders.5 Clothing brands rarely pay factories for their work until the apparel has been manufactured and shipped. Therefore, as fashion brands cancel orders, factories are left to bear the costs of labor and materials. According to a study by Penn State:
“45.8% of suppliers [in Bangladesh] report that ‘a lot’ to ‘most’ of their nearly completed or entirely completed orders have been cancelled by their buyers.” Furthermore, “[w]hen orders were cancelled, 72.1% of buyers refused to pay for raw materials (fabric, etc.) already purchased by the supplier.” 6Anner, Mark S. “(PDF) Abandoned? The Impact of Covid-19 on Workers and Businesses at the Bottom of Global Garment Supply Chains.” ResearchGate, Pennsylvania State University, 27 Mar. 2020
For many factories, these devastating financial losses have resulted in unpaid workers’ wages, factory closures, and mass layoffs.
Even brands that have stepped up to support their factory workers have fallen short in their efforts. Primark, for example, created a fund to help pay the wages of workers affected by cancelled orders. However, the brand has come under fire for stating that the monetary support for garment workers will be adjusted to account for their government aid packages.7. Primark’s statement alludes to a half-hearted commitment, calling into question whether the company’s support is altruistic or a mere publicity stunt to distract from their £135m worth of cancelled orders from Bangladeshi factories.8
One critic at the forefront is Rubana Huq, the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association (BGMEA). Huq has argued that brands have a responsibility to honor their commercial commitments and that Primark’s “[s]alary compensation should not take into account public loans.”9
Poor protections for employees
Furthermore, brands continue to place their factory employees’ health at risk. Ralph Lauren and Vans, among a myriad of other apparel companies, have commissioned workers to produce PPE garments like masks and gloves.10 However, many brands’ manufacturing operations fail to incorporate appropriate safety measures, like social distancing or temperature checks for workers. A representative of Venus Safety, a PPE manufacturer in Mumbai, registered concerns that Indian factories are falling short when required to “take care of workers’ needs and concerns.”11 In many cases, workers feel so unsafe in the factories that they are refusing to even come into work.
“I have 180 workers in my unit but right now only 44% are coming to work. Their families won’t allow them, they are scared so the only thing I can offer them is higher pay.”An official from Sure Safety, an Indian manufacturer of PPE11
Unfortunately, for some workers, home is not necessarily safer than the factory. This is illustrated in Tamil Nadu, an Indian state home to around 40,000 factories and mills.12 It is common for garment workers in Tamil Nadu to live together in overcrowded dormitories where social distancing is practically impossible to practice leaving them vulnerable to COVID-19.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the apparel industry, causing extensive damage to a host of offshore factories in countries like India, Taiwan, Thailand and Cambodia. Lost wages, mass layoffs and unsafe working conditions are exacerbating the already existing struggles of impoverished garment workers and threatening their livelihoods. And so, as challenges continue to arise for factory workers, the pressure on large brands to acknowledge their workers’ struggles, and take immediate and meaningful protective measures is mounting.
 “Nike Code of Conduct.” Nike_Code_of_Conduct_2017_English.Pdf, Nike, Sept. 2017, purpose-cms-production01.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/14214943/Nike_Code_of_Conduct_2017_English.pdf.
 “Child Labor and Young Workers.” Child Labor and Young Workers | Gap Sustainability, Gap Inc., 0AD, www.gapincsustainability.com/child-labor-and-young-workers-0.
 “The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.” The Bangladesh Accord, The Accord, 2013, bangladeshaccord.org/.
 Kohan, Shelley E. “Apparel And Accessories Suffer A Catastrophic 52% Sales Decline In March.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 17 Apr. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/shelleykohan/2020/04/16/apparel-and-accessories-suffer-a-catastrophic-52-percent-decline-in-march-sales/#4e5cdb231b5b.
 Bloomer, Phil. “’Millions of Garment Workers Face Destitution as Fashion Brands.” Ethical Corporation, Reuters, 24 Apr. 2020, www.ethicalcorp.com/millions-garment-workers-face-destitution-fashion-brands-cancel-orders.
 Anner, Mark S. “(PDF) Abandoned? The Impact of Covid-19 on Workers and Businesses at the Bottom of Global Garment Supply Chains.” ResearchGate, Pennsylvania State University, 27 Mar. 2020, www.researchgate.net/publication/340460592_Abandoned_The_Impact_of_Covid-19_on_Workers_and_Businesses_at_the_Bottom_of_Global_Garment_Supply_Chains.
 Hipwell, Deirdre. “Primark to Fund Wages of Factory Workers After Canceling Orders.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 3 Apr. 2020, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-03/primark-to-fund-wages-of-factory-workers-after-canceling-orders.
 “Primark Cancels £250m Orders in Body Blow to Suppliers.” Business Matters, Bmmagazine, 12 Apr. 2020, www.bmmagazine.co.uk/news/primark-cancels-250m-orders-in-body-blow-to-suppliers/.
 “Business Primark Announces Salary Fund for Garment Workers | Global Development.” FR24News, FR24News, 7 Apr. 2020, www.fr24news.com/a/2020/04/primark-announces-salary-fund-for-garment-workers-global-development.html.
 “Fashion Industry Efforts to Address Global PPE Shortages – Update.” Just-Style, Just-Style, 13 May 2020, www.just-style.com/news/fashion-industry-efforts-to-address-global-ppe-shortages-update_id138409.aspx.
 Choudhury, Sunetra. “17 Companies Asked to Help Meet 38mn Unit PPE Shortfall.” Hindustan Times, The Hindustan Times, 3 Apr. 2020, www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/17-companies-asked-to-help-meet-38mn-unit-ppe-shortfall/story-N54od3qAm7tZZzH45DIPgM.html.
 “The Impact of COVID-19 on the People Who Make Our Clothes.” Fashion Revolution, Fashion Revolution, 11 May 2020, www.fashionrevolution.org/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-the-people-who-make-our-clothes/.
Written by Joya Cooper-Hohn