COVID-19 and the garment industry: Protect workers, transform the industry

by 08th Apr 2020
Ruksana Begum earns a precarious living as a garment worker in Bangladesh Ruksana Begum earns a precarious living as a garment worker in Bangladesh

The garment industry employs 60 million workers around the world, nearly 75% of whom are women. The International Labour Organization has estimated that nearly 25 million jobs could be lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and women working in garment supply chains are particularly vulnerable. During this period of crisis, CARE is calling on brands, governments, supplier factories, trade unions and civil society to take action to protect the rights of women working in the garment industry.

What is the impact of COVID-19 on women in the garment industry?

Brands and retailers are cancelling orders from their supplier factories and many governments are imposing restrictions on travel and gatherings. As a result, a large number of garment factories are suspending production and either firing or temporarily suspending their workers. Over 1 million workers have already lost their jobs in Bangladesh and reports suggest many thousands more face a similar situation in the coming weeks in countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia.

The impact on garment workers is devastating. Those who continue to work in factories are at significant risk of infection as social distancing is impossible during their work day and employers may not be implementing appropriate healthy and safety measures. Those who fall sick often do not have insurance or sick pay coverage and will struggle to access services in countries where medical infrastructure and public health systems were already weak even before the pandemic. And for those who lose their jobs, they are facing months without pay to support themselves and their families, have few or no savings to fall back on and extremely limited options for generating income.

Women constitute the majority of the garment sector workforce and, just as in other sectors, they are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Millions of women working in the garment industry face an increased burden of unpaid care work as they are expected to take on the additional responsibilities of looking after sick relatives and children during school closures. Women will experience barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services and rights as their mobility is restricted and resources are diverted away from critical SRHR services into efforts to tackle the pandemic. Economic insecurity and income stresses increase the risk of gender-based violence and restrictions on mobility may leave survivors of GBV in a near impossible situation: unable to seek support, unable to access services, and unable to leave their abusers. (See CARE’s Rapid Gender Assessment of the COVID-19 pandemic for more information. )

What needs to be done to protect the rights of women working in the garment industry during the pandemic?

CARE has been working in the garment industry for over 20 years and is working alongside our partners and allies to respond to the crisis, with a focus on protecting the rights of women and girls. CARE is supporting women workers to adopt COVID-19 prevention strategies, to have access to support services – including health but also psycho-social, sexual and reproductive health, and gender-based violence prevention and support services – and receive much needed financial support for themselves and their families.

However, protecting the rights of workers during the pandemic requires much more – brands, suppliers and governments must meet their obligations to protect and respect the human rights of workers. CARE is joining our partners and allies in calling for all stakeholders to take decisive action:

  • All stakeholders must recognise that women constitute the overwhelming majority of the garment sector workforce and they are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Action to address the risks faced by women workers must be at the centre of all responses to the pandemic.
  • Brands must commit to maintaining their existing orders. Leaders like H&M, PVH, Target and M&S have already done so, but many more must follow suit to meet their obligations to the workers. Brands must work with their suppliers to mitigate COVID-19 risks, including the specific impacts of the pandemic on women workers, ensure workers’ rights are respected, and work collaboratively to provide financial support to workers.
  • Suppliers must collaborate with brands, government and unions to take full account of and address gender-specific impacts of COVID-19, mitigate the risks of the pandemic, meet legal obligations to workers, and ensure that they are financially supported.
  • Governments and international institutions must invest in strengthening social protection schemes to support workers, mobilise healthcare services and enact economic stimulus and recovery packages that take into account the additional risks faced by women. International financial resources must be mobilised to support these efforts.

What are the long-term prospects for workers and the garment industry?

The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced consumer demand for garments around the world, so business will remain slow for many months to come. This means many factories will remain closed – some permanently – or provide employment to much smaller numbers of people than before the crisis.

The current crisis has exposed the fragility of the garment industry. Garment supply chains are designed to maximise brand profits (and shareholder return) through squeezing the margins of suppliers in countries where production costs are low; with governments incentivised to offer tax breaks, low wages and poor working conditions in de-regulated industrial zones to encourage business from the brands. Suppliers and governments have been starved of the resources to meet their obligations to the workers, who are now bearing the brunt of the impact of the crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has broken the supply chain and laid bare the reality behind claims of its ‘resilience’ and ‘sustainability’.

The outlook for workers is dire, but now is a pivotal time to advocate and campaign for a just, sustainable future. The flaws, exploitation and abuse ingrained into the existing business model have contributed directly to the situation now facing workers – it cannot continue. In the medium to long-term, efforts to recover and rebuild will begin but these efforts must not allow the industry to return to a state of business as usual.

Right now, many trade unions, civil society organisations and allied stakeholders are scrambling to respond to the immediate impact of the crisis on workers, but we cannot lose sight of the longer-term future of the garment industry. Over the next few months, we must push forward with a shared, transformative vision for the future of the garment industry with decent work, gender justice and a just transition at its core.

Joe Sutcliffe

I provide technical expertise for CARE globally on Dignified Work – CARE’s strategy for promoting access to gender-equitable, economically empowering jobs for women – with a focus on Asia. I joined CARE in 2016 and have led the development of our theory of change for Dignified Work and a regional Dignified Work strategy for Asia. I support CARE’s country offices with strategy development, new partnerships, programme design, knowledge management and learning.

Before joining CARE, I worked as an ethical trade consultant for three years, managing programmes across Asia and Africa to improve working conditions in global supply chains including: garments, footwear, electronics, home-furnishings and horticulture. I started my career in the international trade union movement, providing research support to global and national level trade unions.

My current priority is launching our new strategy on Dignified Work in Asia, focusing on improving women’s leadership, collective voice and representation in the garment industry.

One good thing I’ve read

There are a few books I always refer back to whenever I feel too caught up in the detail to see the broader picture. Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans: The myth of free trade and the secret history of capitalism debunks the myth of free trade as a model for economic development; whilst Ronaldo Munck’s Globalisation and labour: The new “Great Transformation” is essential reading for anybody who wants to understand the impact of globalisation on work, economics and politics.