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Women bear the cost of Covid fashion industry disruption

Women working in the Bangladeshi garment industry have been particularly affected by the pandemic. Blog by Prof. Muhammad Azizul Islam.

Photo: Research Team.

Published: 26th January 2022

How many of us know where and how the clothes we are wearing were made? The uncomfortable truth is that by buying clothes in the Global North we might be directly or indirectly contributing to the exploitation of people making them in the Global South.

Our research published today, commissioned by the Modern Slavery PEC with the funding of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), explored conditions of women workers working in UK retailers’ supply factories based in Bangladesh during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our report, entitled 'The impact of Covid-19 on women workers in the Bangladesh garment industry', provides specific recommendations for the UK Government, Bangladesh government and stakeholders to eliminate exploitation of women from the global clothing supply chains.

Early reports by academics and NGOs highlighted that the immediate impact of Covid-19 and the cancellations of orders by retailers, many of which are based in the UK or have operations in the UK market, have led to factory closures and job losses, leaving around 2.8 million workers facing poverty and hunger in the garment sector in Bangladesh. Given such a devastating impact of Covid-19 and associated global concerns over exploitation of workers, particularly women, it is imperative to research a gender dimension of this impact and explore how the pandemic has affected women working in this industry. Accordingly, this research project has sought to evidence this impact and to make recommendations for positive change to prevent and remediate gender discrimination in the garment industry.

I often have to work for 14 hours a day. They don’t feed us or let us have a rest. I have to stand on my feet all the time and do the work. It impacts my health significantly. I get headaches and neck pain, and I also have problems with my eyesight.

Female Ready-Made Garment factory worker

Our research has found that UK retailers’ unfair practices, including cancellations of orders during the pandemic, stimulated exploitation and forced labour of women workers. The retailers’ cancellation of orders exacerbated interrelated vulnerabilities in economic security, job security, food security, housing security and health and wellbeing, resulting in women workers struggling to support themselves and their families. We have also found that there was an increase in sexual and verbal abuse and symbolic violence, mainly from line supervisors pushing women to work faster to meet unrealistic production targets.

Our findings challenge some of the conventional Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices by UK retailers such as ethical codes of conduct, social disclosure and social audit practices for improving working conditions in their clothing supply chains, as these have failed to protect female workers’ vulnerability, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. Social audits as a conventional tool can only be regarded as a sticking plaster and not a long-term solution to the problem of the poor protection enforced by the Bangladesh state.

The Bangladesh Government should consider reviewing and revising its legal framework for protecting the rights of all workers, particularly women, in its garment sector. This should include bringing forward legislation to promote women’s rights at work in line with best international practice, bringing maternity leave provisions in line with the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) recommendations, and legislating against sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. The Bangladesh Government should also consider the feasibility of an independent watchdog to ensure that owners respect women’s rights at the factory.

Whilst continuing to place orders into Bangladesh, UK retailers and brands must find mechanisms to eliminate the exploitation of workers in their supply chains that supply them with clothes. They also need to engage with the Bangladesh Government, as well as governments of other countries supplying garments where labour rights abuses are pervasive.

Abusive purchasing practices result from high level of power big retailers and brands have relative to their suppliers. To stop them, our research recommended to the UK Government to consider introducing a fair purchasing regulator, a Fashion Watchdog, which could investigate and fine brands and retailers if they were found to breach a statutory fair purchasing code in their dealings with garment manufacturers, particularly located in global South.

This research is novel from an interdisciplinary research perspective, because business researchers, social science researchers and civil society organisations have met to address one of the most critical global issues during Covid-19 pandemic time. Both academic collaborators and our civil society partner Traidcraft Exchange UK came together to produce impactful insights that have the potential to drive UK policy changes.

This research is important as it addresses challenges raised by Covid-19 such as investigating the impact of the pandemic on women workers vulnerable to forced labour in the garment sector in Bangladesh. We hope it propels the Governments, fashion brands and garment manufacturers to do more to fulfil their responsibilities to protect workers’ rights and improve gender equality in the garment production in Bangladesh and across the world.

Muhammad Azizul Islam (Aziz) is Chair in Accountancy and Professor in Sustainability Accounting & Transparency at the University of Aberdeen Business School.