Global supply chains and the pandemic: Experiences of readymade garment workers in Bangladesh, by Nausheen Quayyum

“Workers at this garment factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh, formed a union with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF), a longtime Solidarity Center ally, enabling them to achieve safe workplaces and living wages.” Image by Solidarity Center(2015)(CC BY 2.0)

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a crisis like no other and like all others at the same time. On the one hand, the pandemic has widened the already considerable chasms that separated the propertied from the unpropertied, the rich from the poor, and the vaccinated Global North from the still largely unvaccinated Global South. On the other hand, the pandemic has revealed with startling clarity the unevenness with which crises affect peoples, communities, and classes. The experience of workers, be it in the Global North or South, attests to this: racialized and women workers have been the hardest hit due to the nature of the work they do.

Disproportionately employed in industries characterized by work that is precarious, flexible, low-income, and yet essential, many workers find themselves uniquely vulnerable to Covid exposure, and at heightened risk of losing the income they rely on for survival. For many of the millions of workers directly or indirectly involved in the readymade garment (RMG) sector in Bangladesh, upon whom many of the world’s most sought-after brands have come to rely, the crisis produced by the pandemic entailed both severe suffering but also a growing resistance. Comprised largely of working-class women, their struggles reveal both the challenges facing racialized and women workers, and how liberal assertions that ‘we are all in this together’ can obscure the ways in which the pandemic has intersected with pre-existing forms of social inequality.


Bangladeshi Garment Workers march to mark the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in the USA, and the deaths of 502 of their comrades in factory fires since 1990. Image by Derek Blackadder, (CC BY-SA 2.0).

When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, the sentiment in Bangladesh was that it might not affect tropical countries as significantly.[1] Transmission rates appeared to be low and public health officials attributed this to the warm, humid conditions characteristic of Bangladesh in springtime. However, this optimism did not last long. While warm and humid conditions did lead to reduced transmission, the true depth of pandemic was obscured by the country’s low testing capacity, particularly in rural areas. At the start of the outbreak, Bangladesh – a country with a population of 164,689,383 – had just one laboratory set up for Covid-19.[2] Most troubling were events abroad. The combined pressure of public health restrictions in many western countries, growing unemployment, and a corresponding disruption in international trade, soon made it evident that even if the country did not experience exponential growth in the spread of the virus itself, it would nonetheless face an economic shock, centred in its biggest export-earning sector – the ready-made garment (RMG) industry.

This industry in Bangladesh emerged in the late 1970s and has since become a key driver of the country’s economic development. Today, it accounts for 84% of the country’s export earnings, bringing in over USD $34 billion in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.[3] Bangladesh is the world’s second largest garment exporter and poised to grow further, despite the disruption brought about by the pandemic. Since its inception, the RMG industry has spearheaded the rapid industrialization of an otherwise agrarian economy and become the single most important source of employment for Bangladeshi women.

Of the 4.4 million workers employed in over 5,000 factories, 3.2 million – or 80% – are women. The vast majority of these women are very young, with little or no formal education and are recent migrants to urban areas.[4] Hired as contract workers,[5] their bargaining power has been undercut by the vast pools of labour available to employers in labour-surplus economies such as Bangladesh[6] and, until recently (2006), by an inability to freely organize within the sector as a result of an outright ban on union organizing.[7] While no official statistics are presently available, unionization rates in factories outside of the export processing zones are currently estimated to be between 5 to 10%, a number that has remained stubbornly low since 2006.[8] Unions have struggled to assert themselves on the factory floor – where their activities remain frequently obstructed – and be recognized by employers as legitimate representatives of workers, with whom they have an obligation to collectively bargain.

At the macrolevel, the RMG sector in Bangladesh is set up to supply the global garment industry with the lowest-value added product in the supply chain: ‘cut-make-trim’ apparel products – and is as yet entirely without auxiliary industries that further feed into the supply chain. The indispensable work performed by these women workers is both labour-intensive and considered low-skilled. It is conveniently assumed to entail naturalized or embodied skills – an extension of the social reproductive work they would have already been doing, unpaid, in the home.[9] Meanwhile, all other aspects of garment production (including research, design, marketing and branding, logistics etc.) are considered high-skilled and directed by large foreign companies higher up in the supply chain.


The declaration of the global pandemic led to significant disruptions in the global garment supply chain, with disastrous impacts for the RMG industry in Bangladesh and for women workers in particular. Starting with disruptions in the shipment of raw materials from China in late 2019, to subsequent closure of markets and stores across Europe and North America (the two major destinations for Bangladeshi RMG products) in response to ongoing public health measures, RMG factories in Bangladesh began to experience suspended orders and delayed payments. Brands, meanwhile, intervened with banks and international financial institutions to secure greater liquidity for suppliers, while others went so far as to invoke force majeure – a legal provision that would allow brands to cancel contracts altogether.[10] The outcome of these events was a sharp decline in total RMG exports in the 2019-2020 fiscal year. While the country started the year with an export target of $38.2 billion – up from $34.13 billion the year before – by year’s end, exports had declined by18.45 per cent.[11]

The reality of the global garment industry is that suppliers from countries such as Bangladesh are many, while international brands are few. With developing countries eager to attract and retain foreign direct investment through the industry, there are incentives to reduce regulations and competitive pressures that grant brands greater control over negotiations. Of note here, of course, is the fact that the Bangladeshi government did not intervene in the negotiations between international brands and suppliers at the outset of the pandemic. What that highlights is the inability of developing countries to intervene in negotiations between buyers and suppliers to advocate on behalf of citizen-workers – even when there is a willingness on their part to do so.


“On May 1, 2018, women rally for a living wage, maternity protections, freedom of association and an end to gender-based violence at work, alongside labor rights organization and Solidarity Center partner Awaj Foundation near the Dhaka Press Club. Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry is the country’s biggest export earner. However, wages are the lowest among major garment-manufacturing nations. Without a union, garment workers, the majority who are women, are often harassed or fired when they ask their employer to fix workplace hazards or seek living wages. Image by Musfiq Tajwar, Solidarity Center (CC BY 2.0).

The onset of the pandemic brought into sharp – and public – focus the uneven nature of negotiations that structure the global industry. Factories were closed across the country, workers were sent home to villages and left with little to no pay despite provisions made by the Bangladeshi government to compensate furloughed workers during the initial lockdown of two months. For the 4.4 million women workers earning significantly less than a living wage in Bangladesh, the start of the pandemic threatened to catapult entire working-class households into poverty as the family member employed in the sector suddenly faced non-payment of wages with no surety of when they might – if at all – receive notice to return to work.[12] A recent research report by Action Aid found that, on average, workers who were laid off during the pandemic had to endure 11 months of unemployment, with 55 per cent of workers reporting that they faced moderate to severe food insecurity during the months of lockdown.[13] The Government of Bangladesh announced a stimulus package for the RMG industry at the start of the pandemic and country-wide lockdown. However, many workers – particularly those employed in smaller factories – did not receive payment.[14]

When RMG workers were asked to return to Dhaka and Chittagong – the two major sites of garment production in Bangladesh in April 2020 at the end of the initial two months of lockdown – they returned to a sector that had made few adjustments since the pandemic first took hold. There was no negotiation with returning workers on their rights to a safe and healthy workplace. Garment factories, already notorious for their unsanitary and unsafe working conditions, were not refitted to ensure adequate ventilation or appropriate physical distancing between workers. And women workers, recognized by all as essential to the prosperity and development of the economy, were once again put on notice that, though their labour was necessary, their safety was not.[15]

A workers’ return to urban areas means more than a return to work; it also means a return to living in over-crowded worker communities and relying on overcrowded public transportation. This has allowed the virus to spread rapidly through both workplaces and worker communities, ultimately placing all who are employed in the industry at risk. Given the significance of the industry for the economy, the Bangladeshi state is invested not only in maintaining its survival, but the social relations that underlie it. It is worth remembering, however, that without the countervailing power of effective workers’ organizations and international solidarity, that the social relations that underpin the industry – while vital to the industry’s survival – put at risk the very survival of those who today labour in it.


Inequality and exploitation are at the heart of ready-made garment manufacturing. The power imbalance between international brands, developing countries, and the workers employed in the industry structures not only the prices at which goods are produced, but those at which they are sold. In this arrangement, there are winners and there are losers. Industry and employer federations are keen to amplify the gains made by women through joining the industrial workforce, and to proclaim the sector’s commitment to labour standards and environmental protection. What is conveniently left out of their accounts, however, is the fact that these commitments are the product of a significant amount of struggle and mobilizing on the part of workers themselves.

The industry, it is true, has opened opportunities for working women, but it has also foreclosed others. The structure of the industry, the dependence of developing states upon it, and the need to recoup monies lost in the pandemic, mean that greater downward pressures on workers (their wages, conditions of work, and rights) is likely on the horizon as states and economies emerge from lockdowns, markets reopen, and the demand for consumer goods bounces back. What it also implies, however, is that the struggles inside it likely to intensify.

What, then, lies in the post-pandemic future for RMG workers? How might they leverage the lessons learned from the pandemic? Previous crises in the industry have led to structural changes in the RMG sector. For example, the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 led to the formation of two global initiatives – the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (Accord) and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (Alliance) – which aim to hold both brands and factories to minimum standards of workplace safety. The same disaster also provided RMG workers with an international platform which translated increased public support into further relaxation of union restrictions in the sector.

The pandemic has itself led to changes, most notably to a concentration and consolidation of both buyers and suppliers globally. Current trends also show sourcing is increasingly moving away from China – the largest exporter of RMG products – to countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam.[16] These developments suggest that the RMG industry in Bangladesh will not only bounce back, but come out of the pandemic stronger.[17] This provides some leverage for the essential women workers at the bottom of the supply chain as they demand living wages, safer workplaces and rights to form representative unions, pointing to a slow – but organic – movement focused on changing the existing power relations in the industry.

The contours of these struggles as the pandemic appears to recede have yet to fully reveal themselves. It is critical, then, to take as our point of departure the perspectives of workers currently engaged in industry organizing, particularly as they pertain to strategies for advancing the struggle for a living wage, workplace safety, and the rights to form representative unions. Their struggle, and our solidarity, will necessarily foreground and shape efforts to minimize the vulnerability of workers at the very bottom of the global supply chain when – not if – future shocks upend the readymade garment industry.

Nausheen Quayyum is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics at York University. Her dissertation explores labour organizing in the readymade garment industry in Bangladesh.

[1] Early research in 2020 suggested that Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, tends to be less likely to survive in hot, humid weather. See, for example, Richard Gray, “Will warm weather stop Covid-19 from spreading?,” BBC Future, 23 March 2020, Link to source.

[2] For testing capabilities in the country, see the World Health Organization, Report on Bangladesh,  “Increased testing capacity, essential step in fighting COVID-19,” 8 October 2020, Link to source and Khan Rubayet Rahaman, Md. Sultan Mahmud and Bishawjit Mallick, “Challenges of Testing COVID-19 Cases in Bangladesh,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17, 18 (2020), 6439; doi.

[3] Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), “Export Performance,” BGMEA web-site, 2021; Link to source.

[4] Nausheen Quayyum, “Women workers in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry: Building an infrastructure of dissent,” Journal of Labour and Society 22,4 (2019), 835-852; doi.

[5] Naila Kabeer and Simeen Mahmud,  “Rags, riches and women workers: Export-oriented garment manufacturing in Bangladesh,” in Marilyn Carr, ed., Chains of fortune: Linking women producers and workers with global markets (London: Commonwealth Secretariat, 2004), 133-162.

[6] Unemployment increased with the onset of the pandemic, from 4.2% to 5.3%. Such data need to be interpreted with caution, given the prevalence of informal labour throughout much of the Global South. The World Bank, “Unemployment, female,” 15 June 2021; Link to source.

[7] The ban on unions continues to be in place for factories located within export processing zones with no indication of it being lifted.

[8] Hasan Ashraf and Rebecca Prentice, “Beyond factory safety: labor unions, militant protest, and the accelerated ambitions of Bangladesh’s export garment industry,” Dialectical Anthropology 43 (2019), 93-107, ;  Faisal Z. Ahmed,  Anne Greenleaf, and Audrey Sacks, “The Paradox of Export Growth in Areas of Weak Governance: The Case of the Readymade Garment Sector in Bangladesh,” World Development, Elsevier 56C, 258–271, DOI: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2013.11.001.

[9] See, for example, Priti Ramamurthy, “Why is Buying a ‘Madras’ Cotton Shirt a Political Act? A Feminist Commodity Chain Analysis,” Feminist Studies 30, 3 (Fall 2004), 734-769 and Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (London, Pluto Press, 1983).

[10] Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and the Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies, University of California, Berkeley, The Weakest Link in the Global Supply Chain: How the Pandemic is Affecting Bangladesh’s Garment Workers (1921), 11, Link to source.

[11] Daily Star (Dhaka), “RMG export earning plummets by 18.45pc in FY 2019-20,” Link to source.

[12] The current minimum wage in the RMG sector is less than a quarter of the living wage. For more discussion on minimum vs living wage, see Sophie Hardefeldt and Ahmad Ibrahim,  Casualties of Fash!on: How Garment Workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia are Wearing the Cost of Covid-19 (Surry Hills, NSW: ActionAid Australia, 2021;  Link to PDF of source. The struggle to raise the minimum wage to align with the calculated living wage has been ongoing for a long time in Bangladesh. See for example, Clean Clothes Campaign, “Full support for Bangladeshi garment workers’ demands on minimum wage,” 6 July 2018; Link to source.

[13] Casualties of Fash!on.

[14] The Government of Bangladesh announced a stimulus package for the RMG industry at the start of the pandemic and country-wide lockdown. “Tk 5,000cr for workers’ pay,” The Daily Star (Dhaka), 3 February 2022;  Link to source. Many workers, especially those in smaller factories, received no payments.

[15] The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) requested the Government of Bangladesh to designate garment workers ‘front line workers’ and therefore be considered for vaccination on a priority basis. The primary reason cited for this was that they are doing their jobs amid the pandemic to protect the ‘economy of the country’. More here: Link to source.

[16] On this, see the International Labour Organization, Research Brief, The post-Covid-19 garment industry in Asia (Geneva: ILO, 2021);  Link to PDF of source.

[17] Optimistic trends are now widely reported across national media outlets. See for example: “RMG exports rise to nearly USD 20b in fast half of FY22,” Prothom Alo English Desk (Dhaka), 15 January 2022,; Link to source and “Rising exports to big markets spur Bangladesh apparel industry’s optimism,” BD, 16 January 2022; Link to source.