THE global apparel industry is currently facing an unprecedented crisis resulting from the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Major fashion retailers in the Global North are closing their stores and laying off workers. The same brands that demonstrated strong public commitment for protecting the safety and security of Bangladeshi garment workers after the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 are not hesitating to cancel or suspend orders or delay payments. US apparel imports from Bangladesh have been projected to drop by 6.57–17.06 per cent, and EU apparel imports from Bangladesh have been expected to drop by 3.67–12.38 per cent (Just-Style, April 2, 2020). The economic impact on the apparel industry would be similar or worse than what Bangladesh experienced during the 2008 financial crisis.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association is legitimately freaking out. As of April 10, 2020, the BGMEA website shows that $3.13 billion worth of export orders have been cancelled or suspended, as reported by a total of 1127 factories. Cancellations and suspensions will affect 2.24 million garment workers. In a YouTube video clip published by BGMEA on March 23, 2020, Rubana Huq, the president of BGMEA, appealed to the ‘good senses’ of global retailers. She urged them to put aside the differences, work together, and step up for Bangladeshi garment workers.
Business vs survival
THE consistent emphasis on the sufferings of Bangladeshi garment workers and putting aside differences in recent BGMEA local and global narratives makes sense to some extent. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Rubana Huq mentions, ‘For them, it’s a question of the survival of the businesses....For us, it’s the survival of our 4.1 million workers’ (New York Times, March 31, 2020). However, the question is not necessarily a binary one between business vs survival. European and American retailers are also struggling to pay their frontline store workers at a mass scale. Many of these workers have already been laid off. Those who are eligible are getting limited forms of benefits from their respective governments, which would not be enough in most of the cases in the face of the upcoming global recession. In Europe and North America, many workers are organising with their unions and allies and staging strikes demanding fair treatment from the giant retailers. For the Bangladeshi garment factory owners, the question of ‘business’ is carefully appropriated by the narrative of the ‘survival’ of workers. There is no point in denying that if the factories shut down, there will not be any jobs for the garment workers. If there are no jobs, it will be challenging for workers and their families to survive. It is a no-brainer that the garment factories must sustain, and they should get the much-needed support they need. However, it is also essential to question what purpose the survival narrative serves for protecting the business interests of BGMEA and the owning class.
IN RESPONSE to a question on why Rubana Huq reached out to the World Food Program for providing food for garment workers instead of putting pressure on the Bangladesh government in the live-streamed episode on ‘Corona and Five Thousand Crore Stimulus Package,’ Huq responded to Khaled Muhiuddin by saying, ‘If you always try to create controversy at this time, this will be problematic. I have been seeing [from the beginning of this programme] that you are pointing out the most controversial topics. We have to stay united at this point.’ Yes, we need to unite and work together during the time of this unprecedented crisis. Nevertheless, a crisis like this one also unravels major systemic flaws that brought us where we are right now. It exhibits the limitations of flexible accumulation and just-in-time production prioritising profit-making ventures over the welfare of workers. It shows us first-hand what happens when countries and factories keep competing endlessly and racing to the bottom by giving the worst wages and worst working conditions to disposable, feminised workers. It is the prime moment to ask what is wrong with our current system, where not being able to export for about a month can turn the entire apparel industry upside down. Why is the same BGMEA — which initially proposed a salary raise from Tk 5300 to Tk 6063 only, vehemently resisted providing garment workers a living wage and raising the minimum monthly salary to Tk 16000, and eventually settled down with Tk 8000 one and a half years ago (Fashion United) — now using the language of workers’ survival and welfare as their business-as-usual gets threatened by the global COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes, running a garment factory is not an easy job. The competition for offering the cheapest product within the fastest possible time with other countries around the world and other factories within the country is extreme. Unrealistic pressure from the retailers, political unrest, not-so-efficient infrastructure and transportation, recent rise in global trade protectionism, increasing automation and the threat of re-shoring manufacturing to the Global North or other cheaper destinations are challenges that are beyond the control of garment factory owners. The only factor the factory owners can control and exploit is labour — which is cheap, feminised, flexible, disposable, and plenty in Bangladesh. When Rubana Huq says, ‘For them, it’s a question of the survival of the businesses....For us, it’s the survival of our 4.1 million workers,’ it’s not a simple ‘us’ vs ‘them’ question. Workers and factory owners can’t be collapsed in the same category. Despite the brutal impact of the series of suspensions and cancellations of orders on the Bangladeshi apparel industry, the BGMEA and the garment factory owners will continue to have a tremendous amount of power and control over the garment workers.
International media blackout
International media, such as New York Times, Guardian, Forbes, Fortune, NPR, and Al Jazeera, widely covered how the suspension and cancellation of orders and irresponsible behaviours of the retailers are threatening the Bangladeshi apparel industry and the job prospects of more than two million workers. The coverage is obviously crucial at this time when the international pressure can push the retailers to reconsider how their decisions may impact their brand images even if they don’t care about workers. Nevertheless, very few of those international media reached out to garment workers first-hand and inquired about their experiences. Very few of them covered stories on how the prime minister’s national address did not say a word about closing garment factories or how both BGMEA and the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association asked owners only to ‘consider’ closing the factories in the mid of the global COVID-19 pandemic or how there was absolutely no coordination. Due to the severe lack of coordination, hundreds of garment workers walked more than 100 km to Dhaka for fear of losing jobs. Rubana Huq expressed doubts about whether all the people returning to Dhaka were garment workers. She claimed, ‘Most of the workers live near the factories,’ which totally ignores the fact that a vast majority of these workers are migrants coming from outside of Dhaka, and they visit their families during holidays. Few international media highlighted the fact that the government of Bangladesh ordered shutdown of most of the workplaces, educational institutions, and public gatherings starting from March 26, but the garment factories were not included in this order. The factories were allowed to remain open as long as the owners can ensure the protection of workers from the virus. Middle- and upper-class people afforded the opportunity to stay home, but the working-class garment workers were left exposed to the threat of contagion. Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity reports that most of the garment factories are not capable of maintaining adequate social distancing on the factory floor, proper use of face masks, hand-washing, access to sanitisers, continuous sanitisation of the machines, safe use of public restrooms, and other hygiene protocols.
Economisation of ‘survival’ narrative
THE latest series of events in the Bangladeshi garment industry resulting from the global COVID-19 pandemic is an epitome of ‘economisation of life’ — a phrase borrowed from Michelle Murphy — which could be explained as a process where protecting the national economy and the owning-class gets priority over preserving lives of feminised workers. It is a mechanism of using economic metrics to determine who gets to stay home and safe from the contagion and who gets to work and remains exposed. The garment workers are currently facing a complex existential threat. On the one hand, their livelihoods are threatened as they are left without work and income. On the other hand, their cramped homes and workplaces offer little to no protection from the contraction of the new coronavirus. BGMEA is overwhelmingly focusing on the economic well-being of workers, at least rhetorically, ignoring the health risks the workers and the greater community will face if factories remain open. In the recent BGMEA video message appealing to international buyers, Rubana Huq says, ‘We will have 4.1 million workers literally going hungry if we don’t all step up to a commitment to the welfare of the workers.’ This hyper-focus on workers’ economic welfare, this humanitarian ‘survival’ narrative as circulated by BGMEA perfectly aligns with their business interests, whereas their historical track records for protecting workers’ safety, security, and well-being are questionable. This simplistic and opportunistic framing of ‘welfare’ ignores more critical, complicated, and structural dialogues about the failure of the just-in-time and lean production in the supply chain and the roles of retailers as well as BGMEA, garment factory owners, and the Bangladesh government.
Why is the apparel industry so extraordinarily fragile that a few weeks of disruption creates devastating impacts? What kind of risk management system for factory owners and workers do we have in place? Who will ensure that the Tk 42 billion funds provided by the Bangladesh government as part of the stimulus package will eventually reach the workers? Will these funds be equitably distributed among all workers on time? Do we have any plan for instituting a system of employment insurance or emergency relief fund for garment workers so that they can get the support they need during crises like this one?
BGMEA is overwhelmingly reaching out to the international media and human rights groups to put much-needed pressure on the brands. Why does BGMEA seem, at least publicly, reluctant to put pressure on the government for more support? Yes, the Bangladesh government is not the German government, as pointed out by Rubana Huq in an interview with Khaled Muhiuddin. Nevertheless, can we ignore the cosy relationship between BGMEA and the ruling government, and the revolving door that exists between the leaders of the apparel industry and the government? Let’s not forget that at least ten per cent of the members of the Bangladesh national parliament own garment factories, and others have indirect financial interests in the industry (New York Times, July 24, 2013). Also, the retailers, local and global trade unions, and Bangladeshi garment factories spent a tremendous amount of time, energy, and resources in implementing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety since 2013. These transnational governance initiatives forced first- and second-tier garment factories to improve building and fire safety. Nevertheless, the current COVID-19 crisis demonstrates that an overwhelmingly disproportionate amount of global attention to a strictly technocratic form of safety and security did nothing to provide workers with a safety net to take care of their jobs and physical and emotional well-being.
Last but not least, exclusively focusing on the apparel industry and trying to provide apparel industry-specific solutions will not bring sustainable changes as the problem lies in the larger capitalist-neoliberal structure of our society and the way we naturalise the free market economy, the widespread privatisation, the shrinking state, the non-existent social security, and our over-reliance on corporate philanthropy, goodwill of NGOs, and individual charity for addressing deep-rooted structural challenges.
Nafisa Tanjeem is an assistant professor of global studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Lesley University in the United States.
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