Here Dr. Rajesh Bheda, textile industry expert based in India, shares his views on the effects Corona will have on the global sourcing community and-most importantly-how to support and engage workers:

"The Coronavirus pandemic can be called the worst international emergency experienced by humanity in the modern history due to its global spread and ability to catch people by a cruel surprise. There is no doubt that it would have catastrophic effect on the entire world.

Different countries are at different levels of the spread of this virus and while there are a few exceptions like Singapore, no country would be spared of its vagaries.

The economic impact of this humanitarian crisis is too mind boggling to fathom. Garment industry is said to be one of the worst sufferers. There are reports of global fashion giants downing shutters in the major consumption markets of USA and Europe. Many of them have suspended the deliveries of the ready goods waiting at the ports and in factories across the globe, majority of them situated in Asia.

There is no doubt that, this would have a devastating effect on millions of garment workers and businesses that work on thin margins.
As per Bangladesh's BGMEA estimates, till March 25, shipments worth 2.58 Billion US$ have already been cancelled or suspended, involving 936 factories and 1.92 Million workers.
In India, the factories in Tirupur have been shut March 22 onwards. The factory owners have promised to pay full salary to workers. The rest of the factories in India have also been shut with national lock down from March 25.
Industry in Myanmar has already seen some factory closures and it is not much different for other apparel manufacturing nations.

It is true that we are all in it together and everybody is suffering or will suffer. This involves brands, retailers, and importers, sourcing companies, apparel manufacturers, subcontractors and most importantly, the workers. However, we must realize that the capacity to cope with disaster is not same for all. If we can work together and help each other, the pain of this pandemic can be minimized. As it is said “Pain when shared reduces and joy when shared multiplies”.

The Indian Textile Minister Ms. Smriti Irani has made an appeal to the global apparel not to cancel the shipments. She said, “Let us show the world that we can do commerce with compassion.”
Bangladesh’s BGMEA President Dr. Rubana Huq has also made a spirited appeal to buyers, not to abandon Bangladesh industry in the hour of disaster.

It is time to listen to one’s heart and act in compassionate manner. As both Minister Smriti Irani and Dr. Rubana Huq have appealed to international buyers, I would like to focus on what can the industry do with special focus on addressing the health concerns and supporting workforce.

On the humanitarian response side, we have several initiatives taken by the fashion industry like:

  • Retailers like H&M, C&A, GAP and others are offering their supply chains to procure and supply PPEs
  • Brandix in Sri Lanka and Ikea in India offered their facility as a quarantine center to support health infrastructure
  • Reliance has set up a dedicated Coronavirus hospital
  • Leading designers like Anita Dongre have made significant contributions towards protecting artisans and small vendors. International designers like Armani, Versace and many more are making donations to funds to support affected people.

All these efforts need to be lauded and thousands more are needed globally as the challenge is enormous.

Here are some of my thoughts that the members of the apparel manufacturing industry may find worth considering. These are presented separately for the apparel manufacturers that are still operating factories depending on their country, risk perception/ Govt. advice and the manufacturers that have closed the factories as a precautionary measure.

What can the factories that are still operating do?

  • Follow the advisory on social distancing for the workforce (physical distancing is a better term).
  • Use the factory communication channels to improve the awareness among the workforce about the precautions to be taken at work, while travelling to factory and at community/home. This will not only help your workers but the community as a whole.
  • You could produce masks and protective clothing. There are several buyers looking for these. The specifications of WHO, the guidelines of AAMI for hospital gowns could be useful or look for your National Standards. This would be a great contribution towards protecting the frontline health professionals fighting the battle against Corona pandemic.
  • Use the time for training the workforce: If you are not able to run all the lines full time due to material shortage, please use the time available to train the workforce on various topics that you did not get time to do earlier.
  • Prepare the workforce for the eventual lockdown. They would greatly benefit if your trainers/managers can guide them on how to lead their life during the lock down/travel restrictions. People travelling to hometowns/villages in large numbers can be very dangerous. 
  • Create a helpline for your employees. This will help them reach out anytime if they need help. Several companies have done that. For example: MAS from Sri Lanka. 

What can the factories do that are currently closed?

  • Please create Whatsapp groups, if you do not already have, to disseminate health related authentic advisory to your workforce in local language. Remember that there are a lot of rumors/ myths going around. Create smaller groups with anchorpersons connected to coordinators to manage the logistics.
  • Motivate them to follow the instructions of Govt. health authorities. People may act impulsively and put their own and others’ lives in danger.
  • Provide emotional support: Your workforce would be under severe distress and may not be equipped to handle the situation emotionally. Provide emotional support on how to manage themselves. Your HR Team may be able to help or look for good external source.
  • Have help lines active so that your people in distress can reach out and receive advise? Share examples and stories of positivity to lift the morale.
  • Guide on how to manage financial stress? There would be severe financial stress. Share simple to apply tips about do’s and don’ts so that your workforce can navigate through the financial crisis as much as possible
  • Start small long distance training sessions on soft skills through platforms like Zoom/ Google Hangout, Skype. We use these applications for training quite often.

One thing is certain, if we join hands with resolve, we can reduce a lot of suffering and bring smiles on a few faces in this hour of crisis. Let us work together to support the most vulnerable and most valuable players of our supply chains, the garment workers!"

Dr. Rajesh Bheda
Photo: Rajesh Bheda Consulting
Dr. Rajesh Bheda
About the author:
Dr. Rajesh Bheda, founder/managing director, Rajesh Bheda Consulting, based in Gurgaon/India, is a consultant, researcher and educator with over three decades of contribution to the apparel industry.
Among his consultants are International Trade Centre-Geneva, International Labour Organisation ILO, EBRD, Asian Productivity Organisation-Japan and several govt. bodies as well as brands and apparel manufacturers.
Before forming RBC, he was Professor and Chairperson of Fashion Technology Department at the National Institute of Fashion Technology. Dr. Bheda holds a Doctorate in Management from the Faculty of Management Studies, University of Delhi and has undergone fellowship at the Manchester Metropolitan University UK.

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