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For Global Garment Workers, ‘Question at Hand Is Still the Same’

As the early part of 2021 begins to fade into the rearview mirror, many of the issues that weighed heavily on the garment industry continue to loom large.

Though the pandemic is receding in most of the West, the Asia-Pacific region, where two-thirds of the world’s garment workers reside, continues to be pummeled by a crushing wave of Covid-19 infections that is exacerbating already shrinking incomes and deteriorating workplace conditions.

One study, published in June by the University of Sheffield and the nonprofit Worker Rights Consortium, found that workers in more than 300 factories across Ethiopia, Honduras, India and Myanmar experienced “sharp declines” in their quality of life from wage theft, verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment and the curtailment of their right to organize and bargain collectively.

Brands and retailers have done little to intervene, choosing instead to prioritize shareholder returns and their own bottom lines by using exploitative buying practices to shift the financial burden onto the suppliers and workers “who [can] least afford it,” the report noted. Suppliers have been forced to accept some orders below cost or agree to payment terms more than twice as long as they’re used to.

The knock-down effect has been brutal on those at the lowest rung of the supply chain, whom labor advocates say were barely surviving on poverty wages before the coronavirus. Clashes with police in countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Lesotho are not uncommon as workers protest over lost wages, delays in scheduled pay increases, owed severance or fears over insufficient safety precautions, sometimes with deadly results.

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The Worker Rights Consortium estimated in April that the “total severance theft” during the pandemic could plausibly be in excess of $1 billion, a number that stands in stark contrast to the robust earnings many brands and retailers have delivered. Amazon, for instance, saw revenues surge a record 38 percent to $386 billion in 2020. Zara owner Inditex, the world’s biggest apparel retailer in terms of sales, reaped 1.1 billion euros ($1.29 billion) in net profit. Nike also performed well, garnering a global gross profit of $16.24 billion.

With Covid-19 in the mix, garment workers who are employed in factories operating at half to full capacity now have to make the impossible decision between showing up for work and potentially contracting the disease or staying home and starving. Because of supply shortages, the garment population remains undervaccinated as a whole. One recent survey of workers in Bangladesh found that just 2 percent of those employed in the industrial areas of Chittagong, Dhaka City, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Savar have been vaccinated.

And pandemic or no, the industrial accidents that have long plagued an industry infamous for its reliance on voluntary oversight continue to trundle on. At least 28 workers, including a 14-year-old girl, died in a flooded house that was being used as an illegal textile factory after heavy rains in the northern Moroccan city of Tangier in February. A month later, 20 workers died and 24 were injured after a fire ravaged a four-story garment factory in the Al Qalyubia province north of Cairo.

Even Bangladesh, which has seen unprecedented improvements in workplace safety since the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, which killed 1,134 workers and injured thousands more, hasn’t been immune. In June, two workers from a dye house just outside the country’s capital of Dhaka died after sustaining burns from a boiler accident. Now with the watershed Accord for Fire and Building Safety set to run out at the end of August, experts say that whatever gains that have been hard fought for over the past several years—and proven that the garment industry can be reformed—are in danger of being rolled back. Already, most of the infrastructure, operations and staff of the Accord has ceded to the Readymade Sustainability Council, a Bangladesh-based tripartite body of factory owners, businesses and workers unions that is poised to supplant the organization, albeit without the legal mandate.

“The question at hand is still the same: will the Accord’s signatory brands agree to a new binding safety agreement that ensures the safety work in Bangladesh remains individually enforceable upon brands, keeps an independent secretariat in place that oversees the brands’ compliance, and allows for expansion to other countries?” the Clean Clothes Campaign said after a three-month extension for the Accord was announced in May. “Without such an agreement, brands’ efforts in Bangladesh will amount to no more than the kind of self-monitoring practices that failed to prevent the Rana Plaza building collapse.”

The situation is equally bleak, if not more so, in Myanmar, where one-third of the country’s 600 facilities are expected to shutter as a result of the economic instability caused by February’s military coup. The move, activists say, could plunge the country’s 700,000 garment workers into further economic distress after a year of pandemic-induced shutdowns, layoffs, pay cuts and wage theft, not to mention the stripping of most of their legal protections and benefits following the ousting of Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government.

A number of brands, including Bestseller, C&A, H&M, Primark and United Colors of Benetton, suspended their production in Myanmar shortly after the takeover mired the nation in escalating violence and bloodshed from the junta’s strikes on pro-democracy protestors. Bestseller, H&M and Primark have since resumed sourcing, citing a desire to protect the livelihoods of the workers who made their clothes. Labor activists, on the other hand, say the companies are putting profits over human rights, particularly since they made their decisions without consulting with unions and worker leaders. Some of the factories they use are also located inside industrial zones linked to the military.

The question to stay or leave isn’t an easy one to answer, even if logistical issues are resolved and links to the military are avoided, the European Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar, an industry group whose members include Besteller, C&A, H&M and Lindex, said in a status update in May.

“European companies now need to decide whether to continue to source from Myanmar,” the organization said. “If not, our suppliers’ factories have informed us that they will close, and more workers will be made redundant and skilled teams in factories will disperse. Inevitably, sourcing will relocate to other countries, and the sector is unlikely to recover for years.”

One region brands are scrambling—and struggling—to decouple from is China’s northwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where reports of the exploitation of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities have emerged with increasing frequency over the past few years. Cotton and cotton-containing products from Xinjiang are already barred from crossing U.S. borders, and new legislation on the horizon could assume that all products from Xinjiang are made with forced labor and should therefore be blocked from entering the American market.

Companies, fashion-related or not, will soon be unable to plead ignorance about the inner workings of their supply chains. In June, the German Parliament passed a law requiring all large and medium-sized businesses to conduct their due diligence in combating human rights violations along their supply chain. The larger European Union is set to do the same. In July, nearly 30 organizations urged the British government to follow the rest of Europe’s lead and introduce corporate accountability laws.

“It’s not possible to ensure respect of human rights without binding laws tackling business abuses of rights, which occur with impunity in the global supply chains of multinational corporations,” Mark Dearn, director of the Corporate Justice Coalition, one of the organizations behind the call, told the Guardian.