Oct 8, 2020 - Economy

How the pandemic devastated garment workers

A penny that looks like a button.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Over the past six months, if you're like most Americans, you've spent a lot less money on clothes than you normally would — while also spending a decent amount of money on masks.

Why it matters: Behind the change in behavior is a huge change in capital flows from some of the largest names in fashion — including Balmain, Urban Outfitters, and Walmart. The biggest losers are some of the poorest people in the world.

Between the lines: My favorite mask is a lovely flowered number from Amy Kuschel. Kuschel's pivot to masks is a classic example of what Pratt professor Minh-Ha Pham characterizes as "white, feminine-presenting, and middle-class" women doing their civic-participation bit in the fight against the coronavirus.

  • When that kind of pivot happens at the scale of the global apparel industry, millions of livelihoods can be destroyed.

How it works: Brands typically place orders for clothes about three months before they want them delivered, but pay only after delivery. "In the midst of the pandemic," writes Pham in the latest issue of Feminist Studies, "western fashion brands and retailers exercised their contractual right to cancel existing orders, or more accurately, to stiff workers on wages for orders already completed and, in some cases, already shipped."

  • Those workers were not white, or middle-class, or, most of the time, even American. The hardest hit were in Bangladesh, where some 4 million sewers make clothes for the biggest brands in the world. Half of those jobs could be at risk from the effects of the pandemic.
  • A similar story played out from Myanmar to Cambodia to Vietnam, where, again, up to half of garment workers could end up losing their jobs.
  • In the U.S., many garment workers are undocumented, which rendered them ineligible for CARES Act stimulus and unemployment checks. Just like their counterparts in South Asia, many of them didn't just lose their jobs — they also were never paid for work they had already finished.

By the numbers: U.S. garment workers, forced to take any job available, are paid as little as 5 cents per mask, or $190 per week. Needless to say, working conditions have not been improved from their pre-pandemic poorly-ventilated state.

The bottom line: "Garment workers making face masks aren't Rosie the Seamstress," writes Pham. "They're not making masks in the safety and comfort of their homes, they're not doing it out of a sense of public-spiritedness or as a show of gendered civic engagement."

  • Artisanal face masks from Etsy (or Amy Kuschel) are all well and good. But they're also, as Pham writes, "a privileged kind of feminist distancing."
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