Nazmin Nahar, a 26-year-old garment worker and mother of two in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is living on borrowed rice. She hasn’t had the wages to pay for food or rent for more than two months.
Even though the hours were long and the targets relentless, Nahar had been happy working at Magpie Knitwear, where she earned £150 a month, making clothes for UK brands such as Burton and H&M. Then, in late March, Bangladesh went into lockdown and the factory closed. When it reopened on 4 April, Nahar was told she had no job to go back to.
“They told us that the foreign buyers are cancelling all our orders,” she says. “That’s why there’s no new work. We haven’t had our salaries for two months now.”
As fashion outlets have re-opened across England and Northern Ireland, on the other side of the world the workers who stitch and sew the clothes hanging on their racks are losing their jobs and facing starvation.
“Our house rent is due. We are buying all our groceries on credit but they won’t give us any more food until we pay our bill. So our landlord managed to get a sack of rice for us and we’re surviving on that,” says Nahar.
In March, at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, as shops shut and countries went into lockdown, fashion brands cancelled billions of dollars of clothing orders with their suppliers in the global south, including clothing boxed and ready to be shipped or already on cutting and sewing lines.
In Bangladesh alone, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association (BGMEA) estimates that fashion brands have recalled around £3bn of orders they had already placed with suppliers.
Rubana Huq, the president of the BGMEA, says that in the last month more than 25,000 workers have lost their jobs. If overseas orders don’t pick up, she says that this could rise to 500,000 in the next six months.
About an hour’s drive away from Dhaka, Rojina Begum, who worked at the Ultimate Fashion Ltd factory that supplies Matalan and other western brands, is at home playing with her eight-year-old son. Begum says she lost her job and her monthly salary of 8,000 taka (£75), after being sacked along with 300 other workers at her factory when Covid-19 hit. Her trade union claims that management told them it was due to cancelled orders from foreign buyers.
“If the fear of the virus wasn’t there, we could have protested strongly,” she says, “but because of the coronavirus, we couldn’t gather our workers and make a strong protest. Whenever four or five workers gathered in front of the factory, they dispersed us. And you can’t build a strong protest alone.”
Another worker, Akhi Akther, who was paid 9,300 taka a month at Sterling Styles, a factory supplying Gap, said she was sacked when she fell ill with Covid symptoms, and now is finding it impossible to find another job. She says she is yet to be paid two months of owed wages.
“We can’t go back to our village because we don’t have anything there, what will we do? Our jobs are our only source of earnings. Orders have shrunk, factories are getting rid of workers left and right. I am emotionally and mentally devastated.”
In Bangladesh, although factories are now reopening, orders are still down by almost 80%. According to an online tracker launched by the Workers Rights Consortium, British retail brands including Arcadia, Primark Edinburgh Woollen Milland the are among those yet to make a commitment to pay in full for all orders completed and in production with overseas suppliers.
Campaigners say that now shops have reopened, it is crucial that brands honour their financial obligations to their suppliers. “We all saw the pictures of queues outside fast fashion stores last week, but these are the same companies that abandoned their workers when they needed them the most,” says Meg Lewis, a campaigner at the Clean Clothes Campaign.
“Brands have simply not been held to account for their behaviour over the pandemic. Paying for the orders you placed with a factory isn’t an act of charity. They have protected their profits at the expense of millions of people’s lives.”
In a statement, H&M said it had not cancelled any orders at Magpie Knitwear and, “According to our information, all affected workers at have been compensated in accordance with national legislation.”
Gap referred the Observer to its inventory strategy, which states “We have been in close communications with our vendors and, over the past few weeks, we have been meeting with each of them individually to evaluate our orders… and establish plans for the months ahead.”
Matalan said: “We are honouring orders that are already in transit, despite being unable to sell those products, and we are doing all we can to avoid cancelling orders.”
The Observer also approached Arcadia, Magpie Knitwear, Sterling Styles and Ultimate Fashion for comment but received no response.