COVID AND EXPLOITATION; GARMENT INDUSTRY WORKERS ARE FIGHTING A DOUBLE-PANDEMIC

by Lotty Clare

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the worst parts of the global system of racial capitalism, and has put into stark focus the number one priority of corporations: wealth accumulation above all else. One of the most exploitative facets of this economic regime is the garment industry.

With governments poised to bail out massive corporations for their losses during this pandemic, who will bail out textile workers in the Global South, where so much of the labour that has generated enormous corporate profits has been outsourced to?

An abrupt halt in demand due to mass store closures has led to brands cancelling orders at short notice and in some cases refusing to pay for orders that suppliers are already manufacturing. CEO of New Look, Nigel Oddy, sent a letter to its suppliers stating that they would not be paying for any costs “in connection with any cancelled orders….this is a matter of survival for New Look.” For big brand executives, the pandemic is a concern purely in terms of profit loss, but for millions of garment workers, delay in payment of wages is quite literally  a matter of survival. 

Labour and human rights abuses in these supply chains occur mostly in the Global South, conveniently hidden from Western consumers. 

The global garment industry relies on a combination of low wages, rapid production lines, and precarious job security, with its buyer-driven supply chains designed in a way which allows corporations to avoid accountability at the production end. The costs of labour and production are outsourced, and brands then enforce extremely unrealistic production targets. As a result, suppliers are left with little alternative but to exploit their workers in order to operate. Labour and human rights abuses in these supply chains occur mostly in the Global South, conveniently hidden from Western consumers. 

The vast majority of the 50 million workers engaged in garment production in the Global South are women of colour. Many of these women are engaged in informal employment, have little or no savings, and are consequently living in a state of income poverty in countries which offer limited if any social security. Furthermore, most small factory suppliers lack the cash reserves or access to credit to pay workers and cushion financial shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In such a context, millions of workers and their families in the Global South face an imminent risk of losing their livelihoods.

In Burma, the pandemic is even being used as a cover to sack unionised garment factory workers. Employees at the Huabo Times factory – a supplier for brands including Zara and Primark – have been resisting ongoing exploitation and abuse of their labour rights carried out by the factory. Nwe Ni Linn, president of the workers’ union there, explained that only 3 days after submitting a union registration form, 107 workers were dismissed, most of whom were union members or leaders. This was done under the guise of COVID-19 physical distancing measures but a matter of days after this took place, 200 workers were then transferred from another factory to replace the workforce lost. 

employees often work 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week and earn around $3 a day,

This is not an isolated incident. In the Yangon-based Jin Sen factory, workers took part in a sit-down strike after the factory reportedly sent spies into union meetings; 13 union leaders were fired shortly after. Sit-down strikes have also been used in other factories to avoid COVID-19 laws that ban demonstration gatherings. In one of Primark’s Yangon supplier factories – Amber Stone factory – workers have been wearing red headbands to protest a similar case of union busting, in which union leaders had allegedly been intimidated and beaten up by company thugs. At the Rui-Ning factory, 298 union members were fired in early May, and Myan Mode factory recently fired 520 of its unionised workers.

These employees often work 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week and earn around $3 a day, however very little has been done in response to workers’ demands for better treatment.

In India too, similar stories are emerging. On the 9th of July more than 300 garment workers organised a demonstration in Erode district of Tamil Nadu to protest non-payment of wages and lack of health and safety measures in factories. In Bangladesh, labour activists have raised the alarm about pregnant textile workers being illegally fired, employees who asked for PPE losing their jobs, and union members being purged under the cover of pandemic response measures. 

Garment factory workers’ strike in Myanmar. Image credit: Food Not Bombs Myanmar Facebook page (Wai Yan Phyoe Moe)

The pandemic has not only revealed the exploitation of workers in the garment industry of the Global South, but closer to home too. In the UK, warehouse workers for ASOS have raised objections and campaigned with GMB trade union over a lack of social distancing and hygiene measures in the workplace. Headlines over the past week have also exposed the exploitation of workers in Boohoo supplier factories in Leicester. Wages of £2–3 an hour have been reported as being commonplace in Leicester factories that supply Boohoo, and employees have said that they were forced to continue work despite being unwell with the coronavirus.

Brands are pushing hundreds of thousands of working class, migrant, and Black and Brown workers into increasingly desperate situations. Yet this is taking place at the same time that these very same brands are releasing statements standing against racism; promising to ‘listen to learn’. But when will they actually listen to workers resisting exploitation in their own factories?

When working conditions are revealed, brands tend to spout empty words about their commitment to fairness and transparency. Sometimes brands will respond to criticism by cutting ties to the individual suppliers in an attempt to shed the blame. But this is not about a few bad factories treating their workers poorly, this is a systemic problem which needs a transformative systemic solution.

The pandemic is making it increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that struggles for labour rights are global struggles. Despite international campaigns, reforms have not done enough to improve working conditions and have done little to change fatally unequal power relations that exist in the garment industry.  Successful change will mean real international solidarity between workers movements in the Global South and Global North.


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