With no better way to spend our time (or money), it seems many Brits have opted to increase their online shopping during the coronavirus pandemic – a new top to lift the mood, a dress to wear when lockdown is loosened, a pair of jeans to make us feel like we have somewhere to be. With a simple click, we can have everything we desire without ever leaving the house. But have we become too far removed from those on the shipping, managerial, and manufacturing end? From those who still have to work in unsafe conditions just to satisfy our consumeristic craving? From those who have to die for the sake of that new top?
Coronavirus has hit the fashion industry hard. With in-person sales at a standstill, companies that thrive on this alone, like Primark, have been forced into near-bankruptcy, their only source of income gone. Empty high streets and shop windows plague the country, a scene previously that would have only been found in dystopian zombie flicks. But behind those shop fronts something much more sinister is going on.
As of May, a number of fashion retailers, including ASDA, Arcadia (the parent company of Topshop, Miss Selfridge and the like), Debenhams, New Look, Peacocks, and Sports Direct, have denied their factory workers £2.5 billion. Primark cancelled millions of pounds worth of orders with immediate effect, later backtracking following uproar. ASOS and Urban Outfitters, amongst others, have abandoned signed contracts. ASDA, despite their prosperity from supermarket sales, agreed to pay suppliers only half of what was owed. Arcadia cancelled all outstanding orders, despite sending a heartfelt thank you note to factory employees in Bangladesh just two weeks before. Making this all the more tough to swallow is the fact that UK retailers were recently given £1 million in emergency funds by the British Fashion Council, while earlier this month, Common Objective raised £350,000 in support of the fashion industry – not to mention the already massive net worth of corporate giants like Inditex and Arcadia.
“They just don’t care,” said factory owner, Mostafiz Uddin, on fashion retailers – “[if the contracts aren’t fulfilled] we will literally die”. He also worried that much of the already-made products would end up in landfill, further contributing to the current environmental disaster. With no furlough system in place in Bangladesh, one of the biggest suppliers to the fashion industry, garment workers are struggling to keep their jobs, with many having already been laid off, as factory owners are encouraged to take out low-interest loans in order to cover COVID costs.
In an effort to revive the clothing industry, many owners have re-opened factories in Asia, often neglecting health and safety requirements. One worker in the Bangladeshi region of Ashulia told The Guardian that ‘mask-wearing and physical distancing are not enforced’ in her workplace, the only new measure being hand-washing at the entrance. Overcrowded buses bring employees to work. Many have paid for masks and other protective equipment out of their own pocket. Workers are falling ill inside the factories. But they have “no other option” if they want to keep their jobs. As many fashion giants like Zara and H&M turn to producing medical gear and PPE, one has to wonder how so many garment workers themselves have been allowed to remain unprotected.
Many have already been let go – recently struck off workers at Myan Mode, a Myanmar-based factory that supplies Inditex (Zara’s parent company), told The New York Times about their suspicions that staff cuts were decided based on union affiliation. Of the 571 workers fired, 520 were part of the factory’s union, while some 700 not involved in the union kept their jobs. Mr Maung Moe, union president, believes “the bosses used COVID as an opportunity to get rid of us because they hated our union”. The current pandemic, however, isn’t the only instance of union discrimination, as last year strikers in Asian factories were punished with tear gas, water cannons, police brutality, and imprisonment.
The coronavirus crisis seems to have banished the word ‘ethical’ from our rhetoric. Previous steps made against the fashion industry have been backtracked and workers are now in a more deadly position than ever before, their lives hanging in the balance. But perhaps all is not lost – Camille Le Pors, Corporate Human Rights Benchmark Lead at the World Benchmarking Alliance noted, “COVID-19 has shone a much needed light on pre-existing issues in supply chains and the treatment of employees within them, and now is the time for us to take action to protect those that most need it.” The good news is, we can take action within our own homes by boycotting those fast fashion companies who have refused to honour contracts and putting pressure on them to provide a higher duty of care in their factories. It really is as easy as not pressing ‘complete order’.
ITV, Retailers withhold £2.5 billion from Bangladeshi factories as coronavirus dents sales, 27 Apr 2020.
The Guardian, Bangladesh garment factories reopen despite coronavirus threat to workers, 27 Apr 2020.
Independent, ‘They just don’t care’: Millions of garment workers facing destitution as Britain’s high street billionaires fail to honour contracts, 6 May 2020.
NY Times, Union Garment Workers Fear ‘an Opportunity to Get Rid of Us’, 8 May 2020.
The Retail Gazette, Is sustainability falling off retailers’ agendas amid Covid-19?, 12 May 2020.
Business Insider, Fashion brands are reopening their factories and making millions of face masks to fight the coronavirus-related shortage, 22 Apr 2020.
Business Matters, Common Objective raises over £350k to support fashion industry in wake of Covid-19, 8 May 2020.
The Guardian, UK fashion industry pleads for more aid to survive Covid-19 crisis, 13 May 2020.
Image credit: Volha Flaxeco