Garment workers paying the price for fast fashion industry's COVID-19 collapse
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;
Story

Garment workers paying the price for fast fashion industry's COVID-19 collapse

Stories/790 , Issues/Discrimination , Issues/Policy , Issues/Human Rights , Issues/Cost of Living , Issues/Women
13th Apr 2021
Garment workers paying the price for fast fashion industry's COVID-19 collapse
Dateline's Calliste Weitenberg investigates the trickle-down effect on the supply chain caused by retail closures during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Fast fashion has become yet another casualty of COVID-19, but who is bearing the brunt of the suffering? Like many of us, reporter Calliste Weitenberg is a keen fashion buff whose shopping habits have dramatically changed during the pandemic. She wanted to better understand the consequences further down the supply chain caused by retail closures during our multiple lockdowns.

“COVID-19 has been one of the biggest hiccups in fashion in its entire history. Everyone in the fashion industry has been affected, whether it’s small, independent designers or big retailers. They are completely rethinking their entire modus operandi: where and how things are made and how fast they make them,” she explains.

Countries like Bangladesh rely on the garment industry to drive economic growth. According to the Asia Foundation, the industry has contributed to its 6 per cent economic growth rate for nearly a decade. The changing practices of big overseas retailers have had trickle-down effects on both Bangladeshi factory owners and the eighty per cent female garment worker cohort that account for over 3.5 million people.

“Retailers facing enormous financial pressure in Australia have delayed payments for the shipments of clothes, which have had profound impacts to the millions of garment workers and garment factories,” Calliste says.

These delayed payments mean that factories have had to take extreme actions including delaying payments to workers because they now only see their money for shipments once clothes have arrived in Australia. Factories are usually paid up front.

“If [the factories] don’t get their payments, it means they cannot pay their workers. So the flow-on effect is to the worker, many of whom have either had their hours reduced or have been let go,” Calliste says.

The reality is that conditions for Bangladeshi garment workers were fraught well before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic hit. The 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, which killed 1,100 garment workers, put some international pressure on the country to reform labour laws and increase wages. However, according to lawyer and advocate for Bangladeshi garment workers Chaumtoli Huq, the growth of the union movement within the garment industry following Rana Plaza was poorly received by the Bangladeshi government.

“There was a police force called the Industrial Police that were set up to squash any disturbance within the garment industry. The industry in Bangladesh is valued at $25 billion and that is about three-quartres of Bangladesh's foreign currency so the country relies upon it heavily,” says Chaumtoli.

There is now a massive unemployment crisis in Bangladesh, and hundreds of thousands of workers are out of a job, facing extreme poverty or homelessness Many of the workers who have lost their jobs are still owed either wages or severances, which were areas where the union movement had made significant progress.

“Activists and unions are now trying to either push the government to expand COVID-19 aid or put pressure on overseas brands to ensure that severances are honoured,” says Calliste.

Calliste has spoken to several not-for-profits in Bangladesh who report that many of the female garment workers who have recently lost their jobs have had to turn to sex work to support themselves and their families.

“Sex work is still extremely stigmatised. While it is legal, it remains criminalised in many other aspects so these women now face extreme risks. Factories are turning workers away and this is now where they find themselves,” she explains.

For Australians conscious about their fashion choices, many would assume that the answer lies in ensuring that more manufacturing is done in Australia where there is greater transparency and brands are held to a higher standard. The caveat of that approach is that garment workers are desperate to keep their jobs.

“Consumers can ask questions. It’s not about not buying clothes, it’s about asking questions of the company that you do buy clothes from,” Calliste explains.

For consumers looking for a lower price point and unable to choose ‘ethical’ brands, many Australian big retailers including Big W, Country Road, Target, and Cotton On now have information about their supply chain readily available on their website. However, there are many big players who still make it difficult to find this information.

“If you can’t find their supplier details, if you can’t go on their website and it’s clearly listed, it’s a red flag, Pressure these less transparent retailers and ask why won’t they publish this information, why shouldn’t they. This is the new standard,” she says.




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