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May Day special: the human face of a supply chain stretched to breaking point, and how technology can help safeguard workers.

Last week, The Interline published an opinion piece where we set out the idea that COVID-19 has a very real chance of being fashion’s responsibility reckoning, and should, by rights, be a catalyst for long-overdue change.

That article was not written with May Day – or Labour Day, or International Workers’ Day worldwide – in mind, but its point has only become sharper since it was published. Yesterday, Reuters ran up-to-date estimates of the number of garment workers who have lost their jobs as a result of brands and retailers refusing to pay for orders – either in whole or in part. The figure should give anyone pause: 60 million.

That’s a large enough number to be essentially impossible to visualise, we realise. You can shave 20 million off it, taking the total to 40 million and giving you the number of migrant workers in India – many of whom have either walked incredible distances on foot after being forced out of their jobs in major cities, or been forced onto the streets while they wait for the railways to start up again.

But that is hardly more manageable.

Some of these segmented numbers are smaller, but no less tragic. Indonesia has seen 2 million garment workers lose their jobs; Cambodia 100,000 across 130 different factories.

The point is not to imply that these countries have sole dominion on job losses. This week saw US unemployment figures pass 30 million – in a country where retail employs close to 5 million people in the sales portion of retail alone. But losing a job in a major consumption market like the US or Europe means, at worst, receiving state unemployment benefits. At best, it means having the majority of your salary paid by the government – at least for the time being.

In India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Myanmar losing a job at a sewing machine means losing access to food, shelter, safety, and a vital lifeline for rural communities where the promise of a family member travelling to a city to work in a garment factory is often the only money-earning prospect there is.

Recently, the World Retail Consortium estimated that around £20 billion ($25 billion US) in supply chain orders had been cancelled by retailers in the Western hemisphere. This week those figures have softened somewhat, as retailers come to terms with the brand damage that passing those losses on to the already-disadvantaged. But even yesterday stories were emerging of Western brands exerting their power and demanding discounts of 50% or 70% on previously-agreed orders, as well as changing payment terms to pass essentially all the risk for not selling the garments on to the supplier.

The Interline recognises, of course, that brands and retailers are not charities. No business model, however robust, can survive indefinitely with reduced – or zero – revenues and continued overheads. If lockdowns continue, and brands and retailers cannot find the right new, non-physical channel to reach consumers, then they will not be placing new orders and the garment supply chain will collapse entirely.

But The Interline does not expect that to happen. Based on the current public and economic sentiment here in the UK, throughout Europe, and especially in the US – where some states are already chafing against the yoke of lockdowns with high-profile protests – it appears far more likely that fashion retail will slip back into gear slowly but surely within the next month.

And this will be where fashion’s commitment to ethics and worker rights is really going to be tested, and where technology could be deployed to support more equitable models when the temptation will be to slide back to the old ones.

We are already seeing examples of the latter. In the rush to offer capacity to overseas brands, and to reclaim the 80% share of export revenue that fashion generates, Bangladesh has begun reopening its factories, with 800 in the initial wave.

The desire to do this is clearly understandable, but the practicalities and precautions are almost totally opaque. Right now, the biggest and best-funded companies in the world are extending their timelines for working from home, in recognition of the fact that ways to return people to work in offices, warehouses, and factories are still being identified. Can brands looking to source new products expect factories in Dhaka – one of the most densely populated places in the world – to have solved this problem? Or is it more likely that garment workers are being put back into virus hotspots because they have no other choice?

But the solution is not for brands and retailers to stop sourcing in Bangladesh, because that route, again, leads to supply chain collapse and humanitarian disaster. The only viable alternative, then, is for fashion to use COVID-19 to implement process changes and integrate technologies in a way that allows them to more closely monitor, co-create with, and improve working conditions at their key factories.

A logical place to start might be 3D, which will enter its second month as our editorial focus from Monday, and which offers clear benefits for improving communication with suppliers – reducing the need for interpretation, and minimising the risk of a factory breaking a code of practice and forcing mandatory overtime, putting people in closer proximity for longer than needed. And beyond, connected machinery, digital materials platforms, shopfloor control systems, and a range of other technologies offer new levels of insight into how factories are being managed – all of which The Interline will analyse this summer in our “Factories of the Future” focus.

So, in honour of International Workers’ Day 2020, consider implementing a new process or extending your use of a technology that might help to make next year’s a cause worth celebrating.

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