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COVID-19 - an existential crisis for the garment industry

23 March, 2020As retailers close shops around the world, garment factories are shutting down at an alarming rate with devastating impacts for garment workers.

IndustriALL has written to all its affiliates that organise garment workers, asking for information on the numbers of factories that are being closed down, the number of workers affected, and any measures being taken by governments and employers to mitigate the impacts.

The picture that is emerging is devastating. Social distancing measures taken in countries currently most affected by COVID-19 are driving wholesale closure of thousands of garment factories with millions of workers being laid off without a social safety net. As the virus spreads within the garment-producing countries themselves, more factories will be forced to close, putting potentially millions more workers out of work.

While garment retailers are shutting up shop in affected countries, garment workers are expected to pay the price for the clothes they have already made.

Not only are major brands and retailers cancelling future orders, they are refusing to take responsibility for garments that have already been produced, using emergency provisions in contracts to stop shipments and avoid paying for the goods they ordered. This leaves factories holding the goods, unable to sell them to the customer that ordered them, and in many cases unable to pay the wages of the workers who made them.

Measures announced by companies to protect the wages of retail and other direct workers are to be welcomed, but the security and wellbeing of the workers in their supply chains, who have made the products on which their business is built, must not be ignored.

There are three critical stages for which interventions are needed, and many countries have already reached stages 1 and 2:

1.    Payment of wages to workers now for orders that have been filled, but will not be paid for by the brand customers

2.    Payment to workers during periods of factory closures, either from lack of orders or from government measures against COVID-19

3.    Support for restarting production

Once the crisis has passed and global brands and retailers are able to start trading again, how many factories will still be in business and have a workforce ready to restart production?

Unless measures are taken now to protect factories and workers to enable them to survive the crisis, the short-term decisions being taken by brands and retailers to renege on existing contracts will end up destroying the very businesses they are seeking to protect.

Brands, employers and governments must come together urgently with trade unions to find ways to support garment workers during this unprecedented period to ensure the future viability of the industry once the crisis has passed.