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Garment Workers Face a Pandemic of Exploitation


The Coronavirus pandemic has caused mass devastation across the globe, and garment workers have taken an immense hit. Revelations made by the Clean Clothes Campaign have demonstrated how those working in the garment industry have been going unpaid by large corporations such as H&M and Nike. The International Labour Organisation found that during the pandemic, a rapid decline in the demand for clothing led to the trade industry all but collapsing in the first half of 2020. Large corporations took extreme measures to protect themselves, such as order cancellations and lay-offs. As a result, many garment workers have become jobless and had their livelihoods, lives, health and security put at risk.

Many workers who were not laid-off are still in terrible situations, seeing wage-drops and delayed payments during the second quarter of 2020. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, factory workers in countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan are due between £2.4 billion and £4.4 billion in unpaid wages from just the first three months of the Coronavirus pandemic alone. The negative impact of the pandemic has not been exclusive to countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, overseas workers in the UK have also been left unpaid.

Fast-fashion’s Ugly Truth

Whilst the pandemic may have exacerbated the issues within the garment industry, the issues are far from new. The garment industry has become synonymous with fast-fashion, a term used to describe the quick production of clothing. Fast-fashion’s ugly truth was revealed in 2013, when Rana Plaza, which hosted five clothing factories, collapsed. Over 1000 garment workers tragically lost their lives. The devastation catapulted the darkside of fast-fashion into the limelight, and sparked a demand for more sustainable practices. Many large corporations stood up and proclaimed a new-found sustainability, but unfortunately, this appears to have been superficial and short-lived.

A Disappointing Turn of Events

Despite promising to be more sustainable, the pandemic has shown that many brands fall very short of these promises. Brands such as Primark, H&M and Nike have all claimed to have introduced more sustainable and ethical practices but, when put to the test, this appears to not be the case. All three of the aforementioned brands have been called-out for failing to pay factory workers adequately during the pandemic; demonstrating the superficial nature of their sustainability claims.

The Disproportionate Reality for Women

If garment workers didn’t have it bad enough, women have been found to be affected disproportionately. In Asia and the Pacific, the garment industry is the largest employer of women among all industrial sectors in the region, employing about 5% of all women workers. Labour Behind the Label states that over 80% of all garment workers are female, and suggest that this is due to gender descrimination and the belief that it is easier to exploit female workers. Unfortunately, this has meant that on-top of dealing with issues caused by the pandemic within the industry, women have also had to deal with the worsening of pre-existing issues. These issues consist of inequalities on workload, occupational segregation, distribution of unpaid care work and earnings.

What Needs to Change?

Despite the wide-spread knowledge of the mistreatment of garment workers, companies are still lacking transparency when it comes to the treatment and adequate payment of workers during the pandemic. Fortunately, coalitions of trade unions and NGO’s are joining forces to demand that companies address and resolve the issues.

Remake has launched the #PayUp campaign, demanding that corporations pay workers what they are owed. A huge success, the #PayUp campaign has so far helped to recoup $22 billion owed to garment factories globally. The campaign has successfully helped millions of workers, but campaigns like this should not have to exist in the first place.

There are hopes that the awful situations that have resulted from the pandemic can become the catalyst for a new-wave of sustainability and safety within the garment industry. The fast-fashion industry is having a catastrophic influence on the planet, as well as workers within the industry. Change is needed imminently, and the industry’s ugly-truth is now getting the spotlight it deserves.

Eleanor Baldwin is a writer Immigration Advice Service, a team of experienced lawyers who assist migrant workers in the UK.

Fashion-Enter Ltd in collaboration with Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) is offering a SEG Awards ABC Level 1 Award in Workers’ Rights and Labour Exploitation to learners and garment workers in Leicester to find out more tap here.

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