What is the impact of COVID-19 on the global garment industry?

The garment industry employs 60 million workers around the world, nearly 75% of whom are women. Women working in the garment industry are disproportionately represented in the most vulnerable, marginalised, low paid and impoverished forms of work. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on global garment supply chains.  Global brands and retailers are cancelling orders from their supplier factories and many governments are imposing restrictions on travel and gatherings.  As a result, many garment factories are suspending production and either firing or temporarily suspending their workers.  Current data suggests that over a million workers have already been fired or temporarily suspended from work and the numbers will continue to increase.

The impact on garment workers is devastating. Those who continue to work in factories are at significant risk as social distancing is impossible during their work day and employers may not be implementing appropriate healthy and safety measures. Those who fall sick may not have insurance or sick pay coverage and will struggle to access services in sourcing countries where medical infrastructure and public health systems were already weak even before the pandemic. And for those who lose their jobs, they are facing months without pay to support themselves and their families, have few or no savings to fall back on and extremely limited options for generating income.  While some governments are implementing schemes to support workers, these initiatives are not consistent and are inadequate in many cases.

What is the impact of COVID-19 on women working in garment supply chains?

During times of crises, women and girls are often most heavily impacted, including adverse effects on their education, food security and nutrition, health, livelihoods, and protections.  Millions of women working in the garment sector face an increased burden of unpaid care work, additional barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services and increased risk of gender-based violence.  Women searching for alternative forms of income may move into other sectors with fewer labour protections and higher risks for women, such as construction, entertainment venues and sex work.

A call to action

CARE calls on all garment industry stakeholders to take action to ensure the rights of women workers are protected during the pandemic.    

All stakeholders need to recognise that women constitute the majority of the garment sector workforce and they will be disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Women workers face an increased risk of gender-based violence and a larger burden of unpaid care work in their homes, and additional barriers practicing their sexual and reproductive health rights; tripartite stakeholders have a huge role to play in supporting women to mitigate these risks and protect their rights during the pandemic.

Recommendations for Brands

  • Maintain existing orders with suppliers – All brands should agree to take delivery of and pay for goods that have been produced and that are currently in production.  H&M, PVH, Target, M&S and other brand leaders have done the right thing and shown that it is possible, now other brands must follow. 
  • Commit to supporting women working in the supply chain who faced increased risks during the pandemic – Brands must work with supply chain stakeholders to step-up gender-based violence prevention and response services, improve access to sexual and reproductive health services and support women workers who are taking on an additional burden of unpaid care work.
  • Work with suppliers to mitigate COVID-19 risks and respect the rights of workers – Support suppliers to meet WHO recommendations for COVID-19 prevention; provide financial contributions and support to ensure workers receive sick pay, wages during periods of suspension and severance pay during lay-offs; support suppliers to put plans in place to address increased risks faced by women workers.
  • Collaborate with governments, suppliers, employer associations, trade unions and civil society to ensure workers are financially supported during the pandemic – Government’s and employer associations in a number of countries are working to provide financial support to workers, but it is unlikely the schemes will meet the level of need.  Brands should support existing efforts and establish funds to ensure that workers are financially supported and can access the health and other services they need.  

Recommendations for Suppliers

  • Mitigate COVID-19 risks and meet obligations to workers – Meet WHO recommendations for COVID-19 prevention; pay workers sick pay, wages during periods of suspension and severance pay during lay-offs; provide additional support to women workers to address the specific risks they face.  
  • Recognise that supporting your workforce is vital and that women workers face increased risks –Retaining and supporting the workforce is vital for the future recovery of the industry.  Suppliers can support protect the rights of women workers by keeping workers safe, providing access to sexual and reproductive health services, delivering schemes to prevent gender-based violence and facilitate access to support services, and offering flexibility to women workers who are juggling an increased burden of unpaid care work. 

Recommendations for Governments and International Institutions

  • Strengthen social protection schemes and put the rights of women workers at the centre of government response – Governments should invest in strengthening social protection schemes to support workers, mobilise healthcare services and enact economic stimulus and recovery packages. Governments should recognise the gendered impacts of the crisis and take steps to understand and address these. Initiatives and services to prevent gender-based violence and support sexual and reproductive health must be integral parts of this response.  International institutions and governments in the global north must mobilise international financial resources to support workers in the global south.
  • Encourage garment brands and retailers in the global north to meet their human rights obligations in the supply chain – Legislation such as the UK Modern Slavery Act, Australian Modern Slavery Bill and French Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law; as well as other commitments such as UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights; should be used to ensure brands and retailers to take responsibility for protecting the human rights of the workers in their supply chain during the pandemic.


Made by Women

Key Contact: Joe Sutcliffe (sutcliffe@careinternational.org)

Notes to Editors

How is CARE responding to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women working in the garment industry?

CARE has been working in the garment industry for over 20 years and is focussing on protecting and supporting the rights and needs of women and girls during the pandemic.  Our response focusses on supporting women workers to adopt COVID-19 prevention strategies, have access to support services – including health but also psycho-social, sexual health and gender-based violence prevention and support services – and receive much needed financial support for themselves and their families.  CARE is advocating to governments, employers and global brands to meet their obligations to protect the rights of women working in the garment industry during this crisis.

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