By Molly Polk Hannon
Photo Credit: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters
Women lift up economies
According to economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen,”Women’s agency and freedom are among the crucial means for enhancing development.” Sen, a professor of economics at Harvard University, and the author of Development as Freedom is keenly aware that women play a pivotal role in lifting up economies. For Sen, this means that nation-states must empower women and girls with more choices and more freedoms to ensure a better future for all of humanity.
Sen is not alone in his views. Her Royal Highness the Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, also shares a similar outlook regarding women’s empowerment— knowing that women’s economic and social freedom is critical to developing countries’ growth and prosperity.
A conversation on this subject transpired during the online summit on sustainable fashion, CFS+, 12-13 October 2020, between Global Fashion Agenda CEO Eva Kruse and HRH. Here, Kruse spoke to HRH about current realities imposed by the events of COVID-19, and how this has adversely affected members of the supply chain, particularly women.
When crisis strikes, the most vulnerable suffer
When a global crisis strikes, it is often the most vulnerable who suffer the most. The fashion industry is hardly an exception. The fashion industry is a 2.5 trillion dollar industry that employs approximately 3.4 million people worldwide, 430 million of whom work within the textile industry, making it a global engine for growth.
However, in times of crisis, this global engine of growth can suffer.
According to the International Labour Organization, global garment trade virtually collapsed in the first half of 2020. “(And) in some cases, imports from Asia’s garment-producing countries to major buying countries dropped by as much as 70 per cent. Cancellations of buyers’ orders were common at the onset of the crisis. Garment manufacturers also experienced disruptions of up to 60 per cent of their imported input supply.”
For the Asia and the Pacific region, which accounts for 60 per cent of the world’s total apparel exports, the collapse of the global garment trade was a shock to the system.
Almost 1,100 Bangladesh garment factories saw orders cancelled or not paid for. And as Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BGMEA) and project partner on the Circular Fashion Partnership in Bangladesh, explained: “That’s impacting lives of 1.2 million workers.”
The Crown Princess and the textile factory workers
Before COVID-19, HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark had the opportunity to travel to Bangladesh, a country that comprises what is often referred to as the ”clothing factory of the world.” During her visit, HRH visited a factory and spoke to many of its female workers.
“I travelled to Bangladesh, and I had the opportunity to visit a factory and some workers. I talked to some of the workers there and if we take Bangladesh as an example, I mean that is a country that is very dependent on the textile industry. 80 percent of their export is through textile and fashion, and they put four million people, and 85 percent are women. And we already know today that one million garment workers have been laid off.”
While the factory that HRH visited may not be entirely representative of all the factories in Bangladesh or worldwide for that matter, it’s fair to say that these kinds of factory jobs provide enormous security and hope for the future of its workers. And by talking with the employees, HRH concludes along with Amartya Sen that women make a difference in economy if they are being given the chance:
“I spoke with a number of women and heard about what it means for them to be unemployed,” said HRH. “The contrast of having a job to not having a job is stark. These women have become finally financially independent. They can support their families and also their local communities. They have a voice in their families and in their communities because they have financial independence. They are also able to invest in their children, their health, their education.”
Only three in five workers are back at the factories
With thousands of supplier factories closed, either temporarily or permanently, worker lay-offs and dismissals were and continue to remain widespread. Factories that have since re-opened also saw reductions in their workforce capacity. The typical worker lost out on at least two to four weeks of work with only three in five workers being called back to the factory. Among those still employed in the second quarter of 2020, they experienced declines in their earnings and delays in wage payments.
Women account for the majority of the region’s garment workers. Since the onset of the crisis, they have been disproportionately affected by the crisis – further exacerbating existing inequalities on workload, occupational segregation, distribution of unpaid care work and earnings.
This dire and an increasingly growing problem for female workers, who have not only lost their jobs, but with that the freedoms it afforded, compounding the severity of their situation further.
Therefore, it remains the responsibility of fashion industry players to devise solutions that can alleviate this suffering and restore economic and social equilibrium to the region. As we welcome a new year and face the second year of a global pandemic, it is critical that members of the fashion industry devise solutions that restore and protect the “clothing factory of the world”, especially its women.