During the past few months, I had worked on a documentary for the BBC which looks at the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the apparel industry of Bangladesh. That documentary caught me at an exceptionally low ebb. I was struggling amid the cancellation of orders and some brands being unwilling to pay for orders which had already been shipped.
Since that time, things briefly did pick up again for our industry as retail outlets began to reopen in the West, following huge self-imposed lockdowns. Since mid-summer, most European markets and the US, the main destinations for Bangladesh apparel exports, have been open for business. I was hopeful that we might be over the worst of the coronavirus in terms of economic impacts, although I was always aware it was going to be a bumpy road ahead.
In recent weeks, however, the mood has changed once again. Brands are putting major orders on hold. I have witnessed this first-hand, as well as hearing anecdotal evidence of this across the industry. The reason for this is clear: as we head into winter, and schools and other educational establishments return from summer holidays, coronavirus cases are once again on the rise. In the wake of over-flowing hospital beds, governments feel they have no choice but to impose lockdowns again in an attempt to control the virus.
This is not to complain about the brands. Since the pandemic started, there have been good brands and bad brands in terms of payments—some have been more supportive of their suppliers than others, and that will always be the way.
Instead, I want to raise the alarm bells for what a second lockdown might mean for Bangladesh's apparel industry and, more importantly, its workers. In the BBC documentary alluded to above, it was made very clear that many garment workers suffered a lot in the wake of the pandemic in March. Some spoke on film of their fears not being about the coronavirus killing them but about poverty if the factories where they are employed could not continue their operation.
I read that for most people, coronavirus is not a serious illness. Its mortality rate among 20 to 30-year olds—the core demographic of garment workers in Bangladesh—is tiny. Coronavirus kills mainly people who are over 65 and the obese and/or people with serious underlying health conditions. I am not trying to downplay this virus which, after all, has killed a great many people around the world. Rather, I wish to bring into focus the problems facing Bangladesh in the here and now.
Bangladesh has a fairly young population and obesity is certainly not a problem in our country compared to western nations. Bangladesh has had just over 6,000 deaths from Covid-19. By way of comparison, the UK, a country with a far smaller population, has had almost 50,000 deaths. The US has had more than 200,000 deaths from Covid-19.
This, then, is the cruel irony: while our customer countries, with their ageing populations and serious obesity issues, face the Grim Reaper of coronavirus hanging over their heads, in Bangladesh our fear is about something entirely different—poverty and associated starvation. The coronavirus might not kill us directly, but its impacts on global apparel supply chains threaten the very fabric of our industry and its people.
Our apparel industry was teetering on the brink in autumn. We thought we were through the worst but further lockdowns in our key markets this winter could take us right over the edge and into the abyss. The impacts on workers and their families do not bear thinking about. I fear a future in which many will face destitution if this crisis goes on for many more months.
Is there a solution? As well as support from the Bangladesh government, we need support from the global community to provide a safety net for garment workers. We as an industry have talked for years about inclusiveness and fairness, and now is the time for all of us to stand up and be counted on these issues.
Are we, as an industry, serious about the Sustainable Development Goals? SDG number 8 is about promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
At full employment, the apparel industry in Bangladesh employs more than four million people, many of them young women. Without support, our industry faces a financial Armageddon, with the potential loss of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of factories and millions of jobs.
With no safety net for those right at the bottom of our industry pyramid, the ramifications are poverty, malnutrition and even death. An industry that prides itself on sustainability, and whose main actors have repeatedly cited the SDGs in recent years, cannot afford to stand by and allow to happen the slow-motion car-crash we are seeing in supply chains.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE).