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Chaos Consumes Garment Supply Chain

The garment industry continues to be wracked with turmoil through a combination of escalating geopolitical tensions and the long-term fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ethiopia

Fewer than half of the 2,000 workers employed in Mekelle Industrial Park in the violence-ravaged northern Tigray region of Ethiopia, for instance, have returned to work since the government’s November military offensive devolved into a full-fledged humanitarian crisis that has killed thousands of people and sent tens of thousands of refugees fleeing into Sudan, labor-rights groups said. Eritrean forces have been helping Ethiopian troops fight Tigray’s former ruling party, creating a widespread pattern of human-rights abuses, including starvation and sexual violence, that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned as “ethnic cleansing” last month.

Garment and textile factories such as Almeda, DBL Garments and Sheba Leather, IndustriALL Global Union said, were looted and vandalized, placing thousands of jobs in an already pandemic-hit sector at risk if they’re not able to reopen and resume operations. The park already closed once because of the pandemic, it said, just before war broke out, and union organizations have been having trouble reaching their members and families. Homes, clinics, hospitals, schools, crop fields and grain stores have been ransacked and destroyed, leaving many in the region of more than 5 million without food, water, medicine or shelter. All this turmoil has crushed Tigray’s nascent ambitions of becoming a major apparel-sourcing destination, at least in the near term.

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In one district south of the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle, where the industrial park is situated, up to 150 people recently starved to death, according to United Nations officials.

While Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said in March that it was willing to work with international human-rights experts to investigate allegations of abuses, there is little evidence such efforts are taking place.

“We call upon the government of Ethiopia to provide peace and security to the people and the workers of Tigray,” Valter Sanches, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, said in a statement. “It is important that the armed conflict is ended so that workers can go back to work without fear and that communities can go back to living in peace.”

Myanmar

In Myanmar, which continues to be inundated by bloodshed and chaos after a military coup in February ousted the Southeast Asia nation’s quasi-democratic civilian government, labor activist Myo Myo Aye was arrested Thursday after the Solidarity of Trade Unions in Myanmar leader was forcibly taken from her office in Yangon.

“Over the years, Myo Myo Aye has relentlessly worked to defend workers’ rights, freedom of association and freedom of expression in the country. Her arrest represents one more attack against human rights defenders and the democratic movement in Myanmar,” the Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest consortium of labor-rights groups and unions, said in a statement calling for her release, as well as those of other detainees, and the restoration of democracy.

“Since the military took over control in Myanmar…searches and raids against democratic leaders and rights activists have been escalating with a sweep of arrests,” it said. “Many labor leaders are now on the run or are hiding to protect themselves and their families.”

Covid, Geopolitical Conflict Roil Global Apparel-Producing
Garment factory workers wear face masks as they finish their work shift near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, April, 13, 2021. Cambodia recently locked the main roads from the city to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in advance of Cambodian New Year’s celebration which falls on April 14 through 16 this year. AP Photo/Heng Sinith

Cambodia

A cluster of Covid-19 cases has emerged in Cambodia, which imposed a two-week lockdown in the capital of Phnom Penh Thursday, after 788 garment workers and related employees across 36 factories were found to be infected with the contagion last week, according to the country’s Sub-Committee on Research and Monitoring of Suspected Covid-19. Nearly all the cases originated in Phnom Penh and its surrounding areas. Authorities fear another surge in cases once the quarantine ends and factories kick back into gear, the Khmer Times said, because garment workers typically live in cramped dormitories where the virus can easily gain purchase.

Cambodia started vaccinating its 500,000 workers earlier this month, though whether the rollout can outpace infection remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) urged brands and retailers not to punish its members if they cannot honor their delivery schedules due to the lockdown.

“The apparel, footwear and travel goods manufacturing sector is not considered essential sector that needs to stay open during the lockdown and thus we have to remain closed,” GMAC said in a statement Monday. “The lockdown is also causing disruptions to the logistics sector and we are unable to freely transport raw materials and/or finished goods.”

Because factories are not able to run as usual, “this may result in delay[s] in production as well as failure to meet previously agreed delivery schedules,” the organization added. “We would like to appeal for your understanding to facilitate and make arrangements to help accommodate this special situation. We urge all of you not to punish our members for this situation that is beyond our control.”

Bangladesh

Across the pond, at least one supplier is hitting out at Peacocks after the British fashion chain allegedly placed orders while the company was in administration before canceling them and offering to pay half of the agreed price.

“What Peacocks did with us is not fair or professional,” Anil Srivastava of Bangladeshi supplier KL Design, which claims it is owed $438,151 or products delivered last June, told The Sunday Times. Edinburgh Woollen Mill, whose chief operating officer Steve Simpson bought Peacocks out of administration earlier this month with the backing of a consortium of international investors, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. (Bangladesh suppliers have threatened to blacklist Edinburgh Woollen Mill before for the non-payment of orders placed before the pandemic.)

A Peacocks spokesman told The Sunday Times that it had “excellent” relations with the bulk of its 1,000-plus suppliers and that it was “deeply grateful to them, our landlords and other partners for helping us through these unprecedented hard times. We won’t forget their support.”

According to a new study, 3 percent of Bangladesh’s labor force have been rendered unemployed by the pandemic, creating an estimated 16.38 million “new poor.” Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and the informal sector will face the highest number of job losses by the end of the year, noted the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies and the Centre for Policy Dialogue on Saturday. SMEs are expected to shed 66 percent in revenue during the pandemic, the report added.

Bangladesh officials announced Monday a one-week extension on the current lockdown, which has left many workers walking to work on foot or shelling out many times more than their usual fares due to the suspension of public transportation such as trains, buses and ferries.

“The restrictions will continue for one more week from Thursday,” Surath Kumar Sarker, the government’s chief information officer reporters. Factories can remain open if they follow health safety guidelines.