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Impact of Covid-19 on global garment supply chains

Project exploring the implications of the pandemic for workers at risk of exploitation in garment producing countries.

The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly altered garment supply chains. Demand for new clothes dropped amidst lockdowns and many large brands cancelled their orders, whilst some refused to pay for goods already produced. This has resulted in suppliers being unable to pay wages and left workers in garment supply chains at increased risk of being exploited.

While some suppliers initially were forced to lay off or furlough entire workforces, many are now hiring workers back on a more casual basis, responding to an uncertain situation, including reduced order volumes and brand requests for discounts.

A research team from the University of Sheffield, in collaboration with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and Worker Rights Consortium, explored the impact of Covid-19 on global garment supply chains. The team also worked closely with the University of British Columbia Global Reporting Centre.

The research examined how Covid-19 has affected vulnerability to forced labour in four key garment producing countries across three continents. The work also considered how brands at the top of the garment supply chain have responded to the pandemic.

The project sought to answer five questions:

  1. How can we understand the UK’s vulnerability to supply chain disruption and how is it affecting reliance on exploitation to produce goods sold in Britain?
  2. Is market turbulence creating demand for forced labour among garment suppliers and how does this vary across different countries?
  3. How have national public health and economic strategies shaped business practices?
  4. What role do lead company responses play in shaping dynamics further down their supply chain?
  5. How are garment workers experiencing the impacts of Covid-19?

The research employed a wide range of methods, including supply chain mapping; a digital survey of workers and suppliers in all four countries; in-depth interviews with workers, business representatives, trade unionists, and government officials; as well as an analysis of Bank of England Covid Corporate Financing Facility data.

The findings formed policy recommendations on how to reduce vulnerability to forced labour and modern slavery in global garment supply chains and will feed into policy debates both in the UK on the strengthening of the Modern Slavery Act and globally in context of strengthening international laws on business and human rights.

Moreover, the research produced recommendations for companies on how to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic and improve sourcing practices to improve protection for workers across whole supply chains. The insight from the project will also be incorporated into the Worker Rights Consortium’s Brand Tracker, which seeks to hold buyer brands to account on paying for orders cancelled during the pandemic.

This project was funded as part of the Modern Slavery PEC call for research on the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on modern slavery.

Project team: Professor Genevieve LeBaron, University of Sheffield, Penelope Kyritsis, Worker Rights Consortium.