Kindly rights in focus

Garment workers

Clothing factory workers in Bangladesh were hit twice by Covid-19, in days of yore when their factories closed, and again when global retailers cancelled orders
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Akhi Akter, 30, at household in Ashulia, says she hasn’t been paid for two months she worked before she fell ill with Covid symptoms.
Photograph: Sazzad Hossain/The Eyewitness

Nazmin Nahar, a 26-year-old garment worker and mother of two in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is living on borrowed rice. She hasn’t had the wages to pay for scoff or rent for more than two months.
Even though the hours were long and the targets relentless, Nahar had been jubilant working at Magpie Knitwear, where she earned £150 a month, making clothes for UK brands such as Burton and H&M. Then, in example March, Bangladesh went into lockdown and the factory closed. When it reopened on 4 April, Nahar was told she had no job to go abet to.
“They told us that the foreign buyers are cancelling all our orders,” she says. “That’s why there’s no new work. We haven’t had our incomes for two months now.”
As fashion outlets have re-opened across England and Northern Ireland, on the other side of the world the labourers who stitch and sew the clothes hanging on their racks are losing their jobs and facing starvation.

Rojina Begum bring ups she and the other sacked workers couldn’t even protest at losing their jobs because of Covid-19 restrictions. Photograph: Sazzad Hossain/The Looker-on
“Our house rent is due. We are buying all our groceries on credit but they won’t give us any more food until we pay our bill. So our landlord handled to get a sack of rice for us and we’re surviving on that,” says Nahar.
In March, at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, as shops shut and sticks went into lockdown, fashion brands cancelled billions of dollars of clothing orders with their suppliers in the far-reaching south, including clothing boxed and ready to be shipped or already on cutting and sewing lines.
In Bangladesh alone, the Bangladesh Garment Makers Export Association (BGMEA) estimates that fashion brands have recalled around £3bn of orders they had already standing with suppliers.
Rubana Huq, the president of the BGMEA, says that in the last month more than 25,000 hands have lost their jobs. If overseas orders don’t pick up, she says that this could rise to 500,000 in the next six months.
Encircling an hour’s drive away from Dhaka, Rojina Begum, who worked at the Ultimate Fashion Ltd factory that satisfies Matalan and other western brands, is at home playing with her eight-year-old son. Begum says she lost her job and her monthly income of 8,000 taka (£75) after being sacked along with 300 other workers at her factory when Covid-19 hit. Her do business union claims that management told them it was due to cancelled orders from foreign buyers.

Nazmin Nahar and her derivation are surviving on rice donated by her landlord since she lost her job. Photograph: Sazzad Hossain/The Observer
“If the fear of the virus wasn’t there, we could set up protested strongly,” she says, “but because of the coronavirus, we couldn’t gather our workers and make a strong protest. Whenever four or five artisans gathered in front of the factory, they dispersed us. And you can’t build a strong protest alone.”
Another worker, Akhi Akther, who was yield a returned 9,300 taka a month at Sterling Styles, a factory supplying Gap, said she was sacked when she fell ill with Covid clues and is now finding it impossible to get another job. She says she is yet to be paid two months of owed wages.
“We can’t go back to our village because we don’t have anything there, what ordain we do? Our jobs are our only source of earnings. Orders have shrunk, factories are getting rid of workers left and right. I am emotionally and mentally nonplused.”
In Bangladesh, although factories are now reopening, orders are still down by almost 80%. According to an online tracker catapulted by the Workers Rights Consortium, British retail brands including Arcadia, Primark and Edinburgh Woollen Mill are develop into those yet to make a commitment to pay in full for all orders completed and in production with overseas suppliers.
Campaigners say that now purchases have reopened, it is crucial that brands honour their financial obligations to their suppliers. “We all saw the pictures of chains outside fast fashion stores last week, but these are the same companies that abandoned their tradesmen when they needed them the most,” says Meg Lewis, a campaigner at the Clean Clothes Campaign.
“Brands be enduring simply not been held to account for their behaviour over the pandemic. Paying for the orders you placed with a mill isn’t an act of charity. They have protected their profits at the expense of millions of people’s lives.”
In a statement, H&M said it had not revoked any orders at Magpie Knitwear and, “According to our information, all affected workers at have been compensated in accordance with popular legislation.”
Gap referred the Observer to its inventory strategy, which states “We have been in close communications with our vendors and, over and above the past few weeks, we have been meeting with each of them individually to evaluate our orders… and establish plans for the months onwards.”
Matalan said: “We are honouring orders that are already in transit, despite being unable to sell those effects, and we are doing all we can to avoid cancelling orders.”
A spokesperson for Ultimate Fashion said: “Due to Covid and social distancing we had to plan creation with 70% of workers and capacity, hence we had to let go off some of our workers in accordance with government rules and regulations.” The Looker-on also approached Arcadia, Magpie Knitwear, Sterling Styles for comment but received no response.

Topics

Garment artisans

Human rights in focus

Fashion industry

Bangladesh

Retail industry

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