Though Covid-19 broke onto the global stage in March last year, the world’s healing rates are varying by region.
The U.S. and the U.K. are some of the regions with the highest vaccine distribution rates. According to Our World in Data, a project of the Global Change Data Lab charity in England and Wales, 68 percent of people in the U.K. and 56 percent of people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
Despite the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s warnings that the delta variant now accounts for 83 percent of all sequenced cases in the U.S., consumers from these regions are celebrating the “end of Covid” with a full social calendar and an associated wardrobe revival that centers on denim. According to the latest report from the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel (OTEXA), U.S. jeans imports jumped 29.18 percent year over year in the five months through May to a value of $1.15 billion, putting pressure on denim suppliers and manufacturers to meet the spike in demand. While the surge presents an opportunity for communities most affected by the pandemic to make a financial comeback, it also presents a higher chance of infection, as many of these regions remain in the midst of a public health crisis.
The report indicates that most of the denim shipments were sourced from communities that remain overwhelmingly under-vaccinated. Bangladesh and Mexico—which together accounted for around $451 million of U.S. jeans imports—are suffering, with just 4 percent of the Bangladesh population and 27 percent of the Mexican population having received their first dose.
The current disconnect creates a situation in which garment workers—a particularly vulnerable population that tends to suffer from malnutrition and have limited access to healthcare—must choose between maintaining a source of income and protecting their wellbeing.
Mills to the rescue
Mills around the world have attempted to close this gap by introducing vaccine programs that lower the barrier to access and encourage employees to get vaccinated. Arvind Denim, located in India, arranged on-site vaccination drives for all employees with support from the Government of Gujarat, where its facilities are based. As of July, Arvind’s Denim business has vaccinated 85 percent of its workforce—a stark contrast from the country’s first dose rate of 22 percent.
Arvind offered the vaccines free of charge, said Aamir Akhtar, the company’s CEO, lifestyle fabric. “For us, employees’ health and wellbeing takes precedence over expenses.”
Located in Pakistan, Naveena Denim Mills has vaccinated 50 percent of its workforce—which translates to 450 employees—and expects those remaining to be vaccinated in the upcoming two to three weeks. By contrast, 4 percent of the Pakistan population is vaccinated.
According to Adil Khalil, senior manager, compliance at Naveena Denim Mills, the company is “doing its utmost to make vaccine access easier.” The company arranged free transportation for 40-45 employees on a daily basis to get their vaccines in Karachi, where it’s based. Though the government provides vaccinations free of charge to all residents in the country, transportation to vaccine sites—which Naveena covered—can present a big obstacle.
Crescent Bahuman Limited and Artistic Fabric Mills (AFM), also based in Pakistan, unveiled vaccine programs for employees as well. According to Zaki Saleemi, vice president at Crescent, the company offered on-site vaccination drives in June sponsored by the Government of Pakistan, helping it achieve 100 percent vaccination at its facilities.
Similarly, through its Artistic Cares Foundation, AFM set up registration desks throughout its facilities to help workers get registered for the vaccine, and offered free transportation to and from the government-run vaccination centers. It also set up on-site centers during work hours at its facilities to offer workers hassle-free vaccinations.
But it’s not just an issue of access that’s preventing certain populations from getting a vaccine. For some, it’s a matter of distrust. Arvind got ahead of vaccine skepticism by rolling out internal awareness campaigns distributed across its employee web portal, via emailers, and through virtual interactions that included doctor-approved information on Covid-19 and all of the available preventative measures.
“There is a lot of misconception relating to vaccines and their effects that are discouraging people from getting vaccinated,” said Saba Iqbal, AFM director of operations. “At AFM, we are doing our part by counseling our employees and encouraging them to get themselves and their families and communities vaccinated.”
To address their hesitation, the mill implemented programs to encourage and educate workers through awareness programs conducted by medical professionals. It also went a step further and offered fully vaccinated individuals the chance to win prizes in exchange for a copy of their vaccination cards. As of July, 25 percent of the company’s workforce has been vaccinated, with numbers increasing daily. Once 100 percent of its employees are vaccinated, AFM will offer the vaccine to their family members in an attempt to get more people vaccinated and help increase the rate of vaccination in the country.
But the responsibility for lowering the chance of infection doesn’t just fall on mills. Through their purchasing practices, brands and retailers can also influence supply chain workers’ wellbeing.
A 2021 report from the Better Buying Institute, a Texas-based research organization, and Ulula, a supply-chain tech firm, indicated that the pressure that came from canceled orders and negotiated rates resulted in increased worker layoffs, greater worker overtime and the escalating use of subcontracting or temporary labor. On the other hand, ethical practices like flexible delivery timelines and early payment plans enabled suppliers to better follow social distancing guidelines, contribute to workers’ social benefits and provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
Purchasing practices by brands and retailers during the pandemic, it found, had a direct effect on garment workers’ livelihoods. By leading with ethics, all players throughout the supply chain can work together to navigate the pandemic.