Unemployment Across the Apparel Industry


To understand the magnitude of the covid-19, all we have to do is, switch on to any TV news station. It seems everything about life has stopped, and there is nothing worth reporting except virus related news. This is understandable, given the severity of the issue. As most of the economic and social activities came to a halt, undoubtedly, this is true for many apparel manufacturing plants, trading houses, buying offices, and retailers themselves. Except for a few mills, manufacturing plants, and related buyers, who are working on PPE’s (personal protection equipment) such as medical gowns, face masks, and other similar products, all other companies are closed, and employees are confined to their homes.

USA situation

This is very much the case for many thousands of fashion retail employees across the USA. They were the first to lose jobs as the government requested to shut down all stores except supermarkets and other food outlets. Most of the employees of fashion retail outlets were on minimum wage or just above minimum wage and was living in paycheque to paycheque. Naturally, losing livelihood is having a devastating impact on them and their families. Most of these employees were living in city centers and suburbs where house rents are astronomical. It was common for many of these workers to struggle to pay rent and afford other expenses prior to Coronavirus. Now it has become an unbearable situation. Most of these employees are resort to apply for social security payments and visit food banks for survival.

Some of the brands, such as GAP, understand the hardship of their former crew members and work with retailers in the essential goods category such as CVS Pharmacy, Walgreens, and Amazon to recruit their laid-off workers. This is an encouraging development. Most of these employees can be easily trained in the new setting as they have the necessary skills and experience in inventory management, seles, and customer care.

Also, it is worth noting that there are many apparel manufacturing plants in the USA. Most of the companies are small to medium scale, with many having less than 50 employees, while few companies were having over 100 sewing operators and supporting staff. Currently, all most all of these plants are closed, and employees are resort to apply for unemployment benefits from the government. Many of the employees in these factories were immigrants, and losing the job has a major impact on their way of life.

South Asia situation

it is devastating to look at the impact of this virus on the vast number of employees across South Asia. It was reported that on last week some of the former Bangladesh apparel manufacturing employees, mostly women, protested in Dhaka, blocking one of the busy highways to demand unpaid wages. It turned out, many larger factory owners, so far not paid for their subcontractors for the work they did and, as a result, those smaller companies could not pay their workers. According to a spokesman of BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturing Export Agency), many of their buyers not paid yet hence unable to pay for the subcontractors. While there is a logic in the statement, it is important to ensure all subcontractors are paid and, more importantly, workers are paid. Most manufactures have access to emergency loans and funds to pay salaries without having to wait for their buyers to pay.

Sri Lanka was under strict curfew for the last few weeks, and all manufacturing plants were closed. Many of those companies had already completed and packed shipments, just needing to ship them. However, the government did not allow shipments to happen, and as a result, many of those orders got canceled. While it is understandable to take every precaution to ensure to limit the spread of the virus, it is equally important to understand there are many moving parts to keeping the socio-economy balance. It is calculated that approximately 200,000 direct apparel employees in Sri Lanka would lose their jobs as a result of this virus. Inevitably, many more thousands of in-direct workers will have an impact over the coming months.

The Indian government gave only four-hour notice before enforcing the curfew. This resulted in many migrant workers getting stranded in cities without having a viable transport mode to get back to their villages. There were many apparel industry workers among thousands of those people who were stranded and had to find shelter in bus depots and street corners. A similar situation happened in Sri Lanka too, and eventually, the government tasked Army to get all affected people, mostly apparel industry employees, to their villages.

There are many organizations, associations, and pressure groups working in the apparel industry that are concerned about the industry, employees, and business development. This is the time for all of them to come together and work out a strategy to look after the welfare of the industry as well as the employees. Even if the virus threat goes away in a few months, the effects of the virus will be lingering for at least a few seasons. We need those sewing operators, ironers, packers soon enough. Looking after them is all our responsibility.

Related post: Retail Apocalypse Due to COVID-19

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