Economy & COVID-19: twin train wrecks for the women who make our clothes

by Dana Stefov | Oxfam Canada | April 24, 2020
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While we are in the midst of the most significant global public health crisis of our lifetime, the veil is being lifted on an economic system that rewards the wealthy and punishes the poor. Oxfam commissioned research shows that progress made to reduce inequality over decades could be lost and as many as 420 million additional people, or eight per cent of the world’s population, could fall into poverty. The economic fallout from the global pandemic is forecasted to be worse than the Great Depression with an anticipated four out of five of the world’s workforce affected.

Among the most impacted workers will be those at bottom of the supply chains, and specifically those in the garment industry.

Indian author and Man Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy reminds us that the tragedy of the virus is “immediate, real, epic and unfolding before our eyes. But it isn’t new. It is the wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years.”

This could not ring more true for the women who make our clothes. For decades, Canadian companies have been outsourcing their production while skirting on their responsibility to protect and fairly compensate the women that make what we wear.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: Garment worker *Shima (26) (right) with her mother *Sharifa (centre), and sisters *Sonia (left) and *Tania (left) at their home in Dhaka. Photo: Fabeha Monir | OxfamAUS

April 24 is the seventh anniversary of the tragic and disastrous Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 workers, mostly women. Thousands of garment workers are reeling not only from the memory, but also from the current COVID-19 catastrophe that no one could have imagined just a few months ago.

Over the past months, I have been learning about the supply chains of Canadian fashion brands and the lives of the women who make our clothes. Every day I learn a shocking new fact. The women that make our clothes do not make enough to live on – often having to choose between rent and food every month. Entire extended families depend on a single woman’s poverty wages, often living together in cramped dwellings without running water. These women don’t have access to adequate health care or social protection. Not before COVID-19 and definitely not now.

The USD $1.4 trillion garment industry has been in the spotlight since the anti-sweatshop movement of the 1990s. However, little has changed. There are systemic failures of the corporate controlled social auditing industry, making factories look rosy, while workers receive poverty wages. There was some progress after the Rana Plaza collapse when brands, industry and workers negotiated the Bangladesh Accord – a binding agreement on safety. Despite this, few big brands (Canadian ones among them) have committed to ensuring workers who make their products are paid a living wage.

In Bangladesh, even though a whopping 80 per cent of their economy depends on the garment sector, profits are put in the hands of anyone but the workers. The practices of retailers and brands are a root cause of labour abuses in factories. Many brands may not survive this crisis, but the ones that do must consider how their actions now impact the survival of the workers and factories they will continue to depend on down the road. Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, fashion brands are cancelling clothing orders that are already complete or in process, refusing to pay for them and abandoning workers for the hours they’ve already worked.

Weekly, I speak with allies and activists in Bangladesh, and stay up late at night with worry reading devastating reports of hunger, anger and desperation. According to police, 20,000 workers took to the streets in protest on April 12 demanding wages and saying they were more afraid of starving than contracting COVID-19.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: Garment worker *Shima (26) prepares a meal at the communal kitchen where she lives. Photo by Fabeha Monir | OxfamAUS

One worker cried, “The government has called a lockdown. Is there a lockdown on our stomachs as well?” Labour rights activist Kalpona Akter estimates that at least 50 per cent of garment workers have not been paid their wages for the month of March. In addition to the factory workers, at the very bottom of the supply chain are home-based garment workers that are often excluded from statistics or support of any kind due to the informality of their employment. They too have not received payment for work completed.

“If factories and brands do not take responsibility, these workers, if they do not die from this virus, they will die from hunger,” says Akter. “We are not asking for [brands] to give charity, we are asking them to pay our workers their wages so the workers can buy food and feed themselves.”

The hopeful takeaway is that Canadian fashion brands can make a difference by taking responsibility and paying the women who make our clothes a living wage. COVID-19 has revealed the cracks in our economic system by shining a light on the essential workers at the bottom of the supply chain. We depend on them and it’s time to act like it. As one industry sourcing executive put it “those trying to manage back to the ‘old way’ may find no stores to return to in a few months. No one is coming out of this unharmed, but how we treat each other, and our partners, will be remembered long after this virus passes.”

In the short term, we call on brands and retailers to honour their contracts, pay owed wages and severance and contribute to relief funds and financial support for garment workers. They must protect workers, complying with World Health Organization guidance for good business practices and allow the right to refuse unsafe work. An inadequate standard of living, the inability to save and lack of social protection should not be the norm. Canadian brands and retailers must be held accountable.

As Oxfam International’s former executive director, Winnie Byanyima, once said, “we must not accept that we shoehorn women into an economy that exploits them and call it ‘women’s economic empowerment’. What better time than now to reimagine our economy and the way we depend on each other.

During the last financial crisis, it was ordinary people who subsidized the world economy with their labour and bailed out the banks. This time around, history must not repeat itself. We must demand debt cancellation, cash transfers, solidarity taxes and an economic stimulus that boosts developing country capacity to strengthen their health systems and support their population. Bailouts must be conditional on action to build fairer, more sustainable economies. This is a crisis of a humanitarian magnitude so significant that the women who make our clothes deserve this now more than ever.

I want to look back on this pandemic as the tipping point, a world reimagined or a gateway that leads us from inequality and injustice to something new, fair and hopeful. I imagine a world where companies do not bankrupt the very people they depend on for their success. One where the women who make our clothes have decent, dignified jobs, with living wages to ensure they can not only eat another day, but also save for the future, and show us that another world is possible.


Dana Stefov is a women’s rights policy and advocacy specialist and Oxfam Canada’s policy lead on women’s economic justice. She wrote this blog with reports from Kalpona Akter and Sushmita Preetha in Bangladesh, and in consultation with HomeNet South Asia and the Bangladesh Institute for Labour Studies. Any errors or omissions are her own.

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