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Many Lessons, Difficult Path to Solutions

Apparel and footwear production in Asia was harshly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cornell University Global Labor Institute (GLI) explores the outcomes of this in its latest working paper, its third in a series of papers supported by the International Labour Organization (ILO). The report builds on a 2020 paper on the pandemic’s short-term impacts in apparel production, and GLI’s 2021 paper, Repeat, Regain or Renegotiate? The Post-COVID Future of the Apparel Industry, which explores long-term changes in the apparel industry and its post-pandemic future.

This newest installment investigates what industry actors learned during the pandemic to prepare for future crises and weighs what policies and actions can advance sustainability and inclusivity in the global apparel sector. The researchers held focus group discussions with representatives of four governments – Cambodia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the United States – six apparel brands and retailers, six manufacturers and manufacturer associations, seven unions and six labor rights organizations.

The resulting paper, “Learning from Crisis: Apparel industry experts on mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic and future crises,” concludes that brand, manufacturer, union, NGO and government participants in the discussions all firmly agree on the need for social protection systems. But their views diverge regarding responsibilities for funding. Likewise, they agree short-term solutions were needed, but what those solutions might look like is varied.

“There's clear agreement that there is a problem, but the parties fall apart when it comes to how you solve the problem, and—as ever—who will pay” said Jason Judd, executive director of the Global Labor Institute. He conducted the research and wrote the paper with Matthew M. Fischer-Daly, Ph.D. ’21, and Sarosh Kuruvilla, ILR’s Andrew J. Nathanson Family Professor of Industrial Relations.

Five themes emerged from the group discussions:

  • Existing national social protection systems and ad hoc pandemic policies were an inadequate response to the COVID-19 crisis and need urgent attention.
  • There was a general deterioration in commercial terms, with significant impacts on workers, between apparel brands and retailers and the manufacturers supplying them in the months following the depths of the crisis.
  • On the other hand, some brand-supplier relationships were reportedly stronger and closer since the beginning of the pandemic.
  • The crisis and resulting ‘campaigns’ to mitigate its fallout drove increased international coordination within some worker and employer groups.
  • A proposal by workers’ representatives for a global severance fund has provoked heightened industry discussions on the need for improved social protection, and which institutions should pay for it.

The paper summarizes national policies implemented during the first two years of the pandemic and their implications for long-term social protection in the apparel industry. It also addresses debates among apparel industry constituencies on policies for social protection, trade and human rights due diligence from an international perspective. Finally, it identifies how the sector changed during the pandemic and has the potential to inform a new generation of policymaking for the industry.

“For me, what was really interesting was capturing in their own words the reactions and the thinking about the future in these different constituencies in the fashion trade.” Judd said. “There was a little bit of finger-pointing and some anxiety about the next crisis, but on the whole the discussions were forward-looking, constructive.”

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