OPINION: The world's largest retailers are destabilising Bangladeshi society under the cover of COVID-19

Thursday, 25 June 2020 14:53 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Retail has reopened across the UK and the world, bringing an end to the strict lockdowns that came at a particular human cost to retail workers, many of whom are relatively low-skilled and dependent on the sector for their livelihoods. More than 3 million Brits - 10% of all workers - rely on the sector for employment.

Those visible employees have been protected by furlough schemes, as well as a range of welfare policies. But British retail is also dependent on millions of invisible employees in places like Bangladesh. Most of them are women, and almost all have little or no savings or safety net.

It is that invisible workforce in Bangladesh’s garment industry that has paid the highest price for the lockdowns, when some of the biggest and best-known retailers abandoned them overnight. Unless this is reversed, it will set back women’s empowerment - much of which is based on steady employment in the garment industry - by a generation.

Over $3.5 billion worth of orders have been lost in the industry, and many completed and delivered orders have gone unpaid as a result of the pandemic, contributing to unprecedented layoffs. 85% of Bangladesh’s workers are in the informal sector, meaning they have almost no formal employment rights beyond a monthly minimum wage which is equivalent to $95 USD. And it is unclear how long their plight will last, with my friends in the industry complaining that Western buyers are at best offering to receive shipments next year and will not commit to a payment deadline, if they are communicating at all.

Big retailers must realise how significant the Ready Made Garments, or RMG, sector is to Bangladesh as whole, and the effects when they suddenly cancel millions of dollars worth of current and future orders without warning. 

If Bangladesh’s economy and society was a human body, the garment sector would be a vital organ. Just as COVID-19 collapses a patient’s lungs, cancelled orders are starving Bangladesh’s economy of oxygen. Over 80% of the country’s exports are in garments, and it employs over 4 million people, a significant slice of whom are now unemployed and destitute (no one knows exactly how many).

Big retail should realise that its decisions have a brutal and often inhumane effect on people on whom their businesses rely.

There seems to be a complacency, perhaps based on the assumption that those human stories will never be uncovered. Even high profile celebrities like Kylie Jenner have recently been criticised for not paying her workers in the country, leading to her being forced to delete and block critical comments on Instagram.

Some brands like Nike have in the past gone out of their way to act responsibly by partnering with well-respected NGOs like BRAC, but there is scepticism as to how sincere these efforts are if purchase orders can be cancelled and invoices ignored at the first sign of trouble. The commitment between Bangladesh and these brands should be two-way and respectful.

As brands continue to shout about the sustainability and ethics of their supply chains and materials, they should be equally concerned about the sustainability and ethics of their labour policies.

Those garment workers in factories in Bangladesh are every bit as essential to their business success as the retail workers on tills in London. They are employees in all but name - and should be given the same status, rights and respect as their colleagues.

Legally, there is almost nothing stopping a well-known retailer treating its workers abroad in a way that would be criminal in the UK. This needs to change. As long as the large fashion buyers are able to take advantage of their suppliers, the labour conditions on the ground will not improve.

The factory boss in Bangladesh is in reality just middle management, often with a UK plc calling the shots. It is there that the decision-making power lies, and it is there that change must begin.

Just as anti-bribery laws hold Company Directors personally and criminally liable if bribes are paid on their behalf overseas, the same cross-border approach should be used to ensure labour rights.

Even if the fashion is disposable, the people who manufacture it shouldn’t be.

Ashfaq Zaman is co-founder of Dhaka-based CNI News.