The global supply chains of international brands and retailers are spread across low-and-middle-income governments including India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Central America and Mexico, and employs at least an estimated 35 million workers. Since the onset of Covid-19, the garment and textile industry, and especially its impoverished workers have suffered huge losses.

The latest surges of Covid-19 cases in India and other parts of South Asia are deeply concerning, and have once again impacted workers’ health and livelihoods.  Low and middle-income governments whose economies depend on garments and textile exports, will experience significant delays in economic recovery unless we achieve swift widespread vaccinations globally.  These governments are between a rock and a hard place, trying to balance economic needs and people’s lives, health, and occupational health and safety.

In October 2020, India and South Africa first proposed a temporary waiver of global intellectual property and trade rules till widespread vaccination is in place globally, to simplify the complex legal regime surrounding expanded manufacturing of medical products needed to control and manage the spread of Covid-19. Since then, over 100 governments, including most recently, the US and New Zealand, have supported the waiver proposal. These governments have called for text-based negotiations on the waiver proposal. Hundreds of lawmakers from the US, Europe, and elsewhere; Nobel laureates and former world leaders; the head of the World Health Organization; faith leaders; the People’s Vaccine Alliance, and countless civil society organizations and unions, have called on governments to support the waiver.

Demonstration in Pakistan during the first wave of the pandemic. credit: NTUF/HBWWF

But a handful of governments, including the EU, the UK, Canada, and Japan have blocked the TRIPS waiver, impeding efforts to expand life-saving healthcare for poor workers.

“The UK, and EU and other governments siding with big pharma interests and continuing to oppose the TRIPS waiver should be warned that they are prolonging the devastating consequences of this pandemic not just for workers and factories globally, but also many brands and retailers headquartered in their own countries,” said Dominique Muller of Labour behind the Label, representing Clean Clothes Campaign in the UK. 

As detailed below, we call on all governments blocking the TRIPS waiver proposal, to drop their opposition, negotiate and finalize the waiver proposal quickly and ensure that all possible steps are taken to expand manufacturing of Covid-19 PPE, testing kits, treatments, and vaccines, to protect poor workers in the global supply chains of international brands.


Covid-19 Outbreaks in Garment Factories and Living Areas

Clean Clothes Campaign and its 237 network member and partner organisations have documented numerous instances of Covid-19 spread within garment factories in different countries including India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Lesotho and Morocco.

In October 2020, 832 out of 1600 workers at a factory owned and operated by one of Sri Lanka’s largest garment manufacturers, Brandix, tested positive for Covid-19. Over the course of the next two months, this resulted in 10,000 Covid-19 cases in the local community.

According to the WHO, Sri Lanka is experiencing a steep climb in the number of Covid-19 cases, with a total of 140,471 cases and 941 deaths.

In Cambodia, it is estimated that garment workers account for 13.2% of all Cambodia’s recorded infections. Media reports indicate that a high number of garment workers live in ‘red zones’ in Phnom Penh, such as Choam Chao I commune, in Por Senchey district, where it is estimated that 40,000 workers live in dormitories. The district has one of the highest rates of Covid-19 infections in the country and many of the cases have been linked to garment factories.

These cases demonstrate the industry’s vulnerability to the spread of Covid-19, particularly due to the indistinct boundaries between work and living spaces. Large groups of workers are required to work in close proximity to each other in factories. Low wages and domestic migration result in workers living together in close quarters, often in shared houses or dormitories, making social distancing impossible at work and at home.


The Ongoing Impact of Covid-19 on the Fashion Industry

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the fashion industry, with long periods of lockdowns across the world impacting on sales. Numerous brands have filed for bankruptcy or entered administration in the past year, including Debenhams, which entered administration in April 2020, the Arcadia Group, which collapsed in November 2020, Camaïeu, which went into administration during 2020, and Esprit which placed six German subsidiary companies in administration in March 2020. 

Brands and retailers have ruthlessly passed on the devastating economic impacts of the pandemic to poor garment workers whose livelihoods depend on their jobs. They unfairly cut orders from factories that had already begun making their branded products. For example, in the first half of 2020, orders from garment-producing countries dropped by up to 70 per cent. In May 2020, a survey of 250 factories in Bangladesh reported that 38% of factories faced order reductions or delayed shipments.

The Clean Clothes Campaign, a global network of labour rights groups spanning across 44 countries, estimates that 13 million garment workers from seven countries are owed between $3.19 – $5.78 billion in unpaid wages for the first three months of the pandemic alone, between March 2020 and June 2020. The Worker Rights Consortium projects that the total severance theft in the global garment industry since the beginning of the pandemic is between $500 million and $850 million.

A large alliance of over 225 worker unions and rights groups is campaigning for workers to be paid back the wages owed and is calling on brands to sign on to a negotiated severance guarantee fund, to protect workers in case of brand or factory bankruptcy.

In the Covid-19 era, the future profitability and recovery of global brands relies on millions of garment workers continuing to work in densely populated factories with little protection from infection, at huge risk to themselves and their communities. Without intervention, global production will continue to be hampered by emerging new variants, localised lockdowns, factory closures due to outbreaks of Covid-19 and disruption to shipping and logistics.

“Workers in the garment sector have continued to show up in factories making clothes and shoes for brands and retailers in the US, Europe, UK, Australia and other parts of the world,” said Tiruvalluvar Yovel, working on South Asia and occupational health and safety at the Clean Clothes Campaign international office. “By blocking the TRIPS waiver proposal and blocking an important measure to scale up the manufacturing of Covid-19 medical products, including vaccines, these governments are turning their backs on workers’ rights to health.”


TRIPS Waiver and Occupational Health and Safety, Economic Recovery

To date, almost all countries that are huge garment suppliers have a massive shortage of supply of vaccines. It may be years before garment workers, typically women in their reproductive age, become eligible to receive vaccines. Many of these countries depend significantly on COVAX, which is prioritising supply for health workers, older people, and people with comorbidities.

High-income governments’ donations to COVAX and vaccine donations do not substitute for the TRIPS waiver. Money alone will not automatically manufacture more vaccines, unless the capacity to expand them is also created. The small quantities being donated are a drop in the ocean and nowhere close to the number of vaccines needed to achieve widespread vaccination globally.

The occupational health and safety of all garment workers and other essential workers is a core part of their labour rights, as enshrined within the meaning of ILO Convention 155 and Recommendation 164, as well as their right to health under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The TRIPS waiver is critical to protecting the occupational health and safety of poor workers, mostly women, who are part of the global supply chains of international brands and retailers, including those headquartered in the US, UK, Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australia. It will also be important in speeding up the economic recovery of the sector overall and pursuing a rights-driven agenda of achieving living and fair wages for workers globally.


Call to All Governments

Garment workers’ unions, and labour and human rights groups working to protect the rights of garment workers globally, call on all governments, especially the UK, EU, Switzerland, Japan, Norway, and Australia:

  • To support the TRIPS waiver proposal put forward by India and South Africa in October 2020, and finalise a strong proposal as quickly as possible; and
  • To take all possible measures to diversify and expand the production of Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, testing kits, and personal protective equipment through widespread sharing of technology, including by participating in the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool.


To Brands and Retailers, Industry Associations, and Multi-stakeholder Initiatives

Global brands with business models reliant on outsourcing labour to low-income countries have a human rights responsibility and moral duty to take action and use their leverage to ensure that garment workers, and garment producing countries, have equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines. In addition, workers’ health is key to economic recovery in the garment industry. Brands have a vested financial interest to ensure that workers, and their communities, are protected from Covid-19. We are calling on brands to:

  1. Publicly support the TRIPS Waiver proposal and support global equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, testing kits, and personal protective equipment.
  2. Lobby governments to support the TRIPS Waiver and expand capacity to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines, testing and treatments, and personal protective equipment, to keep workers safe and help garment supply chains recover.
  3. Support the call for a People’s Vaccine by the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

Labour Behind the Label, as the UK representative of the Clean Clothes Campaign Network has joined the People’s Vaccine Alliance and is supporting its goals.