COVID-19 and Garment Workers
Updated: Sep 16
This post was written in conjunction with Michelle McVicker, Collection and Education Assistant at the Museum of FIT. Special thanks are due for her insight on PPE and essential farm workers.
As COVID-19 continues to impact daily life here in the States and around the world, I can't help but think of workers in the middle of supply chains who are struggling more than ever to make ends meet. I do not intend this post to be in any way exhaustive, but wish it to be used as a jumping off point for gaining awareness of this issue.
March 16, 2020 was a significant day here in America, as the shut down changed the planned course of our economic work year, but the impact to industry didn't stop at our borders. Garment workers -- in places such as Asia, Central America, Europe, and South Africa -- the large majority of which are women and children, felt the impact of COVID-19 almost instantaneously.
Mark Anner, of the Center for Global Workers’ Rights in Association with the Worker Rights Consortium at Penn State, highlighted three major blows to the garment industry, in a March 27, 2020 report,
"The current crisis facing the garment sector in Bangladesh developed in three phases. First, there was the crisis of ‘raw materials’ procurement. Second, there was the crisis of buyer late payments. Third, there has been the crisis of buyer cancellations of in-process orders. The culmination of these three phases has been devastating on businesses and over 1 million workers."
By the end of March, the severity of the situation was becoming clear -- in Sri Lanka orders were cut back by 40%, and workers were going to have to wait a full month for wages.
By June 2020, over 1,900 global brands were reported to be postponing or canceling orders in Bangladesh, leading to over $3 billion worth of losses for the garment sector.
The Clean Clothes Campaign has been tracking injustices to garment workers since March 16. They reported that in India, once public transportation stopped after the shut downs, many workers were forced to walk home. By March 30, at least 22 workers had died from having to walk miles to and from work. Due to lack of nutrition and diseases due to overcrowding, what might be perceived as a simple walk to work, was really a risk of life for the security of income.
Garment workers in Albania were also dealing with particularly concerning fallout from the global pandemic:
"Despite early and strong measures on public life, including closure of schools and public offices, [The Clean Clothes Campaign] network organizations report that many business in Albania continue operate, such as mines, call centres and garment and shoe factories. Women in garment factories continue to work close to each other, in no conditions to ensure their safety and of the rest of the communities they live with.
Two weeks ago, women workers were protesting in the yard of a factory in Tirana, because they were fearing for their life under these circumstances. The next day another protest took place in another factory in the suburb of Tirana. Factory owners state that workers are free to choose if they want to come, but they won’t get paid if they do not show up.
In some factories in South Albania factory managements are reported to “explain” to workers that the virus is exaggerated by media. When in the ProDyn factory in Tirana a first case of a 38-year-old woman worker infected with Covid-19 virus was confirmed, the factory continued to operate normally despite the concern expressed by the workers. Just three days later, after 10 other workers showed symptoms of the virus and did not show up, the owners decided to suspend work for two weeks."
According to Elizabeth Segran at Fast Company, as of July 30, 2020, there were garment workers in factories in Los Angeles who still had not been provided with personal protective equipment (PPE). If they did not bring their own, they simply worked without, placing themselves and others at risk. The Los Angeles Apparel factory had to be shut down twice in June by the city health department for mass outbreaks of the virus; over 300 workers tested positive and 4 of them died. The Garment Worker Center informed Fast Company that outbreaks of COVID-19 had been spreading in part due to the fact that many garment workers are not offered time off and must come to work sick. In Los Angeles, many workers are undocumented, leading to additional fears over missing work or reporting their illness.
The lack of protections for workers considered one form of "essential" or the other, is underlined when analyzing the safety of farm workers in America. Parallel problems are evident. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued only voluntary guidelines to protect workers and there lacks a national policy that equally protects all laborers. Although the CDC encourages employers to provide clean cloth face coverings (or disposable face mask options), these recommendations have not been enforced. In an effort to provide the PPE farmworkers were not receiving from their employers, the United Farm Workers Union initiated donation drives in which supporters purchased masks that would be distributed directly without charge. The masks were designed by Justin Watkins, Project Manager of the UFW’s Marketing Department, who was motivated to create supplies that both protected and elevated their spirits by recognizing them as essential workers in the community. In a recent correspondence with Molly Hart, UFW Operations Manager, she stated, “I Am Essential/ Soy Esencial on protective face masks and the hashtag #WeFeedYou have become inextricably tied in the public’s minds to the farmworker community, some of our nation’s most valuable essential workers, continuing to work and keep food on our tables during the pandemic, and to the UFW’s efforts to protect them when many growers will not.”
Over 90,000 workers have returned to various garment factories in Bangladesh as of the end of August, but many workers remain jobless. Understandably, after months of lost wages, employment, and housing and food insecurity, workers are staging protests against factories and ownership. This includes the workers of the Dragon sweater factory, who were fired in March without pay or benefits, and continue as of September 2020, to protest for their lost wages.