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Special edition – COVID-19: Garment workers among most affected

As I write this, the world’s privileged, myself included, are quarantined at home (or should be) while medical professionals are risking their lives to fight this weird war that’s randomly smacked us in the face.

And being in quarantine is hard – you can’t go out and do all of the fun things you’re used to doing, you have to self-discipline when it comes to your schedule and meals, many (including myself) are managing difficult emotions and/or kids at home.

But some people out there are literally struggling to survive. As in, they are more at risk of dying from hunger than the virus. Like garment workers in India who have lost their income and their housing and are walking hundreds of kilometres to their home villages as I write this blog post from the comfort of my heated home [1].

Clothing companies refusing to pay for orders

So what exactly is happening? In response to the closed stores and declining sales, fashion retailers have understandably been cutting back on production orders to the third world. But according the Fashion Revolution [2], brands don’t pay their suppliers until after the clothes have been received and inspected. This means that orders that haven’t been filled and received can technically be cancelled with no payment. And that’s what’s been happening in the wake of COVID-19.

Factories that have had payments and orders cancelled had to lay off workers, often with little to no notice or compensation, and try to figure out what to do with the clothes that have already been produced but not paid for [2]. Meanwhile, brands are providing compensation packages for their retail and office workers, who are perhaps more protected by legislation in their home countries, but no such cushioning is offered to garment workers [2].

Imagine toiling away your life in awful conditions while being paid less than $100 USD/month, and then suddenly being told you’re out of a job, you won’t be paid for the work you’ve done in recent weeks and you’ll have no company assistance whatsoever to figure yourself out from there [3]. Oh, and there’s a deadly virus going around so you need to self-quarantine, in a home that you maybe no longer have or can afford, or one where the conditions are so bad that social distancing isn’t at all possible. I’ll take being locked up in a cosy apartment for a few weeks, right?

NO company has offered emergency relief for garment workers

What’s most baffling to me is that H&M honouring already-placed orders without being prompted is considered almost heroic [4]. Seriously, they’re being praised for paying for what they ordered? Industry standard or not, they should be doing more to help the very people they depend on to make their product – providing emergency funds, shelter, food, etc. If the company doesn’t have enough liquidity, then the billionaire CEO himself can step in with his personal assets. He owes his company and his fortune to these people. But of course, he won’t.

I’m personally touched by this because I lived in Africa and have been very close to the reality of extreme poverty. In Kenya in 2015, $10 USD/month could mean the difference between a child having a school to go to and at least one hot meal a day and them foregoing school and doing what it takes to survive at a very young age. $10 USD. I’m pretty sure I’ve bought cocktails that cost more than that.

What you can do


[1] Courriel international, “Coronavirus: en Inde, un confidement à deux vitesses”, https://blog.courrierinternational.com/bombay-darling/2020/03/30/coronavirus-en-inde-un-confinement-a-deux-vitesses

[2] Fashion Revolution, “The impact of COVID-19 on the people who make our clothes”, https://www.fashionrevolution.org/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-the-people-who-make-our-clothes/

[3] Based on the March 29 post on the @asia_floor_wage_alliance account on Instagram (field update from the General Secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union in Sri Lanka).

[4] The Daily Star, “H&M comes to its garment suppliers’ rescue”, https://www.thedailystar.net/business/news/hm-comes-its-garment-suppliers-rescue-1887454?amp; Ecotextile News, “H&M to pay suppliers for goods in production”, https://www.ecotextile.com/2020033025891/materials-production-news/h-m-to-pay-suppliers-for-cancelled-orders.html

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