By: Israa Jahan
COVID-19 has affected industries all around the world, putting jobs and the fate of employees in a precarious position. One of the hardest hit industries has been the garment sector because consumers are not spending nearly as much on clothes, and as a result, companies are cancelling their clothing orders.
Bangladesh’s economy, in particular, relies heavily on the garments industry: about 80% of the country’s exports comes from garments. So, when these companies cancel their orders, the Bangladeshi economy is hit hard.
From the surface level, late cancellations cause the factories to lose revenue from these orders. What remains unnoticed is that these Bangladeshi factories have to pay their employees and buy materials before they are even paid by the retailers and brands. This means that every time an order is cancelled, the factories are not only losing the potential revenue from that order, but also the money that they have invested into it.
This is, at its core, an ethics issue, an issue that gained recognition in 2013 after the collapse of one of the largest garments’ factories in Bangladesh: the Rana Plaza in Dhaka. A total of 1134 workers were killed and 2600 were injured and left disabled.
The US and the EU, Bangladesh garments’ largest customers, demanded that factories are more strictly inspected and labor rights are improved. They even paid workers’ compensation for injuries and families of the victims during this time.
Now after $3.5 billion worth of clothing orders have been cancelled from Bangladeshi factories, these same US and EU companies that paid these compensations before are silent.
Currently, Bangladeshi garment workers have been protesting for their fair share of wages from their factories of employment because many of these workers have not been paid for their work for months, since March 2020. Although Bangladesh requires severance payments from employers, many do not follow this law and furthermore, there are almost no unemployment benefits insured by the government.
These workers were already earning just enough money to get by, about 8000 takas ($95) monthly, and are mostly women who use every bit of this small salary to help their entire family. The Bangladeshi government has announced that they will sue those factory owners that have not paid their employees during the pandemic; however, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) say that many of these factory owners cannot afford to pay their employees because so many of the large name brands and retailers are refusing to pay for their order.
Unfortunately, there is no law in Bangladesh that these factories can use to force the brands to pay for their previous orders either. The government under PM Sheikh Hasina has announced about $8.5 billion as a stimulus during the pandemic, and some of this will be allocated to factory owners to borrow and pay their workers’ salaries. But these factory owners will at one point have to pay back their debt, and it is uncertain where this money will come from.
The BGMEA uses the reasoning that after a while, when there is somewhat of a semblance to normalcy, people will start to buy clothes again, but at that time all of these factories will be closed and unable to take any orders. It is in the brands’ and retailers’ best interest to keep these factories open and uphold the human rights’ reputations that they have established after Rana Plaza.
It is true that with the pandemic, retail sales all around the world have gone down, with the US specifically down by 8.7%. From the brands’ and retailers’ point of view, they are also continually losing money from these dropped sale numbers and having to lay off workers and close stores. Of course, at the time of the Rana Plaza accident, these brands were in much better financial shape than now and it was much easier for them to pay injury compensations to garment workers. Now, for retailers, such as JCPenney, which declared bankruptcy in mid-May due to the pandemic, it is difficult to choose between paying their own employees and the garments workers.
However, for brands and retailers that have a surplus of profits from the year before and are more financially capable, which covers a majority of these companies, it should not be difficult for them to at least pay for the orders that they have placed and those in production (such as Walmart and Adidas). This is not an outrageous expectation from the companies because it is their responsibility to pay for the orders that they have already placed.
This issue has caused people from all around the world to speak up, most notably on Instagram using the hashtag #payup to demand companies to pay in full for both their previous orders and those that are in production. This hashtag initially gained popularity after the Rana Plaza accident and was used to demand retailers and brands to pay full injury compensation for vulnerable garments’ workers.
Adidas, Target, Gap Inc., and Nike are among the companies who have pledged to pay for their orders or have been pressured to, while Urban Outfitters, Walmart (Asda), and JCPenney are among those companies who have not agreed to pay fully for their orders completed or in production. For a more complete list, please take a look at the links below.
These garments’ workers need all of us to speak out, so that they don’t have to worry about feeding themselves and their families on top of the pandemic. To help this cause, please use and participate in the #payup movement, sign the petitions that demand brands to pay up using the links listed below, and raise more awareness about this issue.
Israa Jahan (she/her) is a sophomore at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, studying Microbiology. In the future, she plans on joining the medical field to become a physician but takes a liking to culture, history, religion, and language. She is a Bangladeshi American and enjoys learning about her own culture as well as that of others. She loves spending time with family and friends and reading her favorite series, Harry Potter.