Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Lately, we have started seeing stories about garment workers being rescued from factories. When we saw the story of nearly 1,200 workers being saved from a factory in the middle of the pandemic, we felt the need to share. Not only because it is shocking, but also because it shows that the pandemic has not stopped the industry and that there is a growing potential for change in the cracks it has created.
Let us step back for a moment.
A system in crisis
The fashion industry has been a dysfunctional system for a very long time. A system that prides itself on growth, speed, and fortune that is made at the cost of human life and the planet is not a success. A business model that over-produces and needs an ever-increasing amount of water, energy, labour and space cannot possibly survive. We have known this for years. Though those in power keep choosing not to see, most of our clothes come with an extreme human cost.
Usually, when a crisis happens, it is those in the lowest positions who feel it the most. As we wrote in our previous post, when the pandemic started, it had the greatest effect on the garment workers.. How brands and factories reacted to the crisis follows the same logic of exploitation and “profit-over-anything” kind of thinking. However, we cannot solely blame the pandemic for the crisis in the fashion industry. Instead, we have to be aware that the issues run much deeper.
We cannot pretend to be able to show the whole complexity of the fashion system in a single post. Not even a series of posts. However, we can start connecting the dots to explain the reason why the workers were locked down in a factory and what the emergency response could teach us all.
India is the world’s 5th largest economy, and now has the second highest amount of COVID-19 cases recorded (by country). Recently, the Guardian reported that the current coronavirus cases in India have soared with a new daily record number of 78,761 - the world’s highest single-day increase since the start of the COVID pandemic. This has increased the total number of cases in India to 4.8 million (as of 15/09/20 according to the Guardian) in a country of 1.4 billion people.
The already large number of COVID cases is increasing, which means that there is pressure on the government to impose even stricter lockdowns. However, there are also a number of industries hemorrhaging money and facing collapse post COVID unless they are able to open for business immediately.
India’s economy is plummeting and this will most highly likely result in the loss of jobs for many Indian garment workers. Consequently, this could mean an increase in modern slavery and women working for even less merely to survive the pandemic. We can see this happening already, through the loss of 5 million jobs in July and salaried jobs declining by 22% during the lockdown. The loss in jobs ultimately will make it harder to bring things back to normal post-COVID as completing/catching up with work projects will take even longer. This is due to social distancing implementations which would need to be adhered to, along with strict sanitization norms, minimising the number of workers in an office or factory.
Ultimately, the workers in the garment industry will be even more likely to have to work for less than an appropriate wage. Due to having no income during the pandemic, they may, unintentionally, expose themselves to working in even worse conditions compared to before. Evidence? The 1,200 workers saved from a factory recently.
Is there a third way?
Being stuck in this dilemma may only worsen the consequences. What if, instead, we look for another way? Pressure to go back to the “norm” assumes that the “norm” was working. Maybe for those making profit, it was, but for the garment workers, especially those who are forced to continue working during the pandemic, the “norm” was never working. In most cases, they could not afford basic needs, even at the cost of their health and, in the most extreme cases, lives.
We’d like to make a strong case here: we cannot push for the industry to get back to how it was before the lockdown. The crisis we are seeing now in the industry has existed long before the pandemic. But because the world has slowed down, we can see those cracks more clearly.
Most industries in India are facing the same financial dilemmas. Interestingly, however, agriculture is an exception. The sector reported a growth of 3.4% during COVID with farmers stepping up and taking responsibility to sustain themselves and others as the pandemic continued. The farm sector evolved simultaneously alongside society due to the socio-environmental changes, which increased the crops harvested by 13% for oilseeds and 7% of kharif crops. This actually increased the farmers’ income.
Alternative ways already exist
There is no easy formula here, nor should we look for one. Easy fixes cannot address the complexity and the deeply rooted inequalities of the fashion system. Yet, some of the answers might be hiding in the self-resilience of the agriculture model of India. Though not without flaws, the key lesson we can see here is the ability of the agriculture sector to adapt and absorb the shock of the pandemic. The fashion system operates on a different logic. Lead by the logic of efficiency and linear growth, the fashion industry turned into a global and non-transparent trade where countries like India depend upon the market dictated by the Western countries. Countries like India are treated as factories for the rest of the world, putting them in a dependent position and not allowing them to build any resilience to global shocks. When the latest shock happened, the very real consequences fell on those who are the least protected.
Ultimately, the answer is neither stopping the economy nor forcing people to work in unsafe conditions. It is in reinventing the system. We don’t expect it to happen immediately or quickly. But we do invite each of us to see that there are alternative ways existing around us. For this reason, it is important to share the voices that usually don’t get heard. Listening to, learning from, and acknowledging their realities is a first step towards stepping out of this fashion crisis, which goes beyond the pandemic.
We share some of those on our voice platform and we invite you to engage with them. And we invite you to share your voice with us too!
Tena & Bela