Female Garment Workers Disproportionately Impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic

The garment industry, like many other industries across the globe, has taken a massive hit during the Coronavirus pandemic. As countries began to enforce their own restrictions to protect people from the virus, many retail stores were forced to close. This has meant that in a bid to protect themselves, large clothing brands cancelled thousands of mass orders. 

words by Reanna Smith, images courtesy of Care International

Garment trade collapses 

The World Trade Organization estimates that world trade could fall by up to 32% in 2020. Alongside this, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 400 million full-time jobs will be lost globally across industries, with women affected at greater rates than men. The disproportionate effect on women is already clearly being seen within the garment industry.  

From 2000 to 2014, the total number of individuals employed in the garment sector significantly increased, from 20 million to 60 million, and a massive three-quarters of these workers were women. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is now reversing this trend and instead of seeing an increasingly growing sector, the industry is practically collapsing. 

According to a report by the BSR, millions of garment workers have been laid-off or furloughed during the pandemic and left with limited or no income. Bangladesh is one of the countries that has been most affected by order cancellations, with orders decreasing by 45% when compared to 2019. This has meant that many workers have been forced to rely on charities for basic food and necessities, as they have been left without a safety net.

woman working on wig
? Nadi Jessica /CARE lendwithcare.org

The disproportionate impact on women 

With women making up the vast majority of workers in the garment industry, they have been significantly impacted by the pandemic, this disruption to the supply chain has not just affected women in terms of income, according to a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), it has also exacerbated pre-existing inequality. 

Before the pandemic women were already more likely to be vulnerable to exploitative labour within the fast fashion industry, an issue that has only increased in severity. As well as this, women were already doing three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men globally. A survey by Care International has suggested that the pandemic has further increased women’s burden in the home.

The burden of increasing domestic duties has particularly become an issue for female garment workers whose places of work have reopened. Despite some factories re-opening, day-care facilities remained closed, meaning that women who were responsible for childcare were unable to go back to work. 

The ILO report states that there have also been allegations that employers have dismissed pregnant workers during the COVID-19 crisis and have failed to pay them the maternity benefits that they are legally entitled to.

woman with crutch

What needs to change to protect female workers?

The BSR report found that both male and female garment workers have been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, both going without food and seeing reduced income. However, it is still evident that women are disproportionately affected and are affected in different ways. They face a higher risk of gender-based violence and are already emerging as the group most at risk from the economic impact of coronavirus.

It’s clear then that in order to properly protect the rights, health and wellbeing of women, serious changes need to be made. The BSR sets out several clear recommendations for companies to improve the way that women are treated throughout the pandemic and within the garment industry. These improvements include developing gender-inclusive recovery plans that seek to understand women’s needs, engage in conversation with women working in the supply chain to hear directly about their experiences, reinforce relationships with suppliers and collaborate with organisations that champion female workers rights, and offer urgent relief to women experiencing hunger, gender-based violence and other issues.  

These steps are necessary for the future security of females in the garment industry, but currently, women continue to be ignored and mistreated throughout the pandemic. 

Reanna Smith is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, a UK legal team that offers support and assistance with partner visas, asylum claims and much more.