Women, garment, apparel

“On a normal working day, we are live in factories,” said Business for Social Responsibility’s director of the HERProject initiative Christine Svarer.

But that’s all changed with the coronavirus outbreak. “At the moment, all our in-factory work is paused, suspended or postponed. It varies from country to country,” she added.

While factories in China are sputtering back to life, with most running at 80 percent capacity, elsewhere it’s just getting started.

India, a key apparel sourcing country, as of Tuesday imposed a strict 21-day lockdown, which will bar citizens from leaving their homes.

Not just there but in Cambodia, governments are now looking at options for “part-pay” for the garment industry workers. In the case of the latter it will allow garment workers to receive 60 percent of their minimum wage if factories close — partially buoyed by the government.

Myanmar, Egypt, Bangladesh and other countries are seeking what Svarer calls a “social safety net” to temper the blow of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable subset of the global fashion supply chain: the garment and textile workers.

Representing the majority of the garment industry workforce, an uneven burden is placed on female workers, which is why HERProject exists — “to ensure that women’s empowerment and employment go hand-in-hand.”

It is a 2007-founded initiative under Business for Social Responsibility, a global nonprofit that partners with fashion, beauty and luxury companies including LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Kering and Chanel.

But as Svarer will admit, difficult decisions are being made sometimes at the expense of these “critical” garment workers in the distant supply chain.

While updates are “live unfolding,” HERProject has acted quickly with “awareness-raising and prevention” for factory workers, upping digital communication tools between factories and preparing for the inevitable: if in-factory work has had to stop, Svarer asked, “how can they continue the work?”

In crisis management, fashion brands and retailers are currently canceling orders, closing shop and looking to their home governments for support.

All things considered, Svarer said: “We need to rethink how we respond.”

She infers the best-case scenario is where “we’re seeing a combination of government support and long-term commitment from international and local factories.”

“The most important thing is that there is a reminder to continue to think about all of your workers in your supply chain,” she reiterated, calling for “immediate solidarity with these workers” now to better set up the industry in the long term with a more “human-centric” model.

Although garment workers may not be actively engaged in orders (unless tasked with making masks or sanitizers), they will become critical again.

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