HomeCoronavirus'My life became a disaster movie': the Bangladesh garment factory on the...

‘My life became a disaster movie’: the Bangladesh garment factory on the brink

As high streets across England opened this week and hundreds of people jostled through the doors of clothing shops, thousands of miles away in Chittagong, Bangladesh, Mostafiz Uddin is worrying about how to pay his workers’ wages.

At Denim Expert Ltd, the sustainable clothing company he founded in 2009 as a sustainable apparels clothing company, hundreds of boxes of jeans are crammed against walls and packed to the ceiling. These boxes contain 38,000 pairs of Burton jeans, worth more than £200,000 that were ready for shipment in early March. But as the UK went into lockdown that month, an email pinged into his inbox that tore his life apart.

Arcadia, the company run by billionaire Sir Philip Green, which owns the Burton brand alongside others including Dorothy Perkins and Topshop, told Uddin it was cancelling all its orders and would not accept any shipments from his factory.

Mostafiz Uddin ‘couldn’t believe what was happening’ when he received the email from Arcadia. Photograph: Noor Alam/The Guardian

“After I read that email, my whole body was shaking, I just couldn’t believe what was happening,” he says.

On top of the jeans packed and ready to ship, Uddin claims he had spent $340,000 (£275,000) on material to make another 60,300 pairs of jeans for Burton and Dorothy Perkins worth $425,000. He alleges another £1m had gone on material purchases based on projections of Arcadia orders he was told were coming down the line. “In total the Arcadia orders that had been placed at my factory were worth over $2.44m. All gone, in one day.”

In a statement, Arcadia disputed Uddin’s claims, saying it only considered the £200,000 of finished jeans as a cancelled order and that it would now be paying for all the orders in production at Denim Expert. A spokesperson also said that Arcadia was not legally responsible for material purchased by Denim Expert Ltd for future orders.

“It is completely inaccurate for Mr Uddin to claim that Arcadia has cancelled orders totalling $2m. The total value of orders we were forced to cancel as a result of the pandemic was closer to £200k for stock which was to be delivered between June and November,” said a spokesperson.

Arcadia wasn’t the only brand that cancelled orders at Uddin’s factory as retail outlets closed across the UK. Peacocks, owned by Edinburgh Woollen Mill, refused to accept shipment of 15,100 pairs of jeans or pay for another 30,000 items of clothing that were already in production.

Customers wait in line to enter Topshop on Oxford Street, London, on 15 June, 2020

Customers wait in line to enter Topshop on Oxford Street, London, on 15 June after lockdown measures in England were eased. Photograph: Barcroft Media/Getty

The unprecedented cancellations from brands that Uddin had worked with for decades shattered his life’s work in a matter of weeks. Overall, 80% of his orders were gone with no compensation.

In Bangladesh alone, fashion brands have cancelled an estimated £2.5bn of orders at more than 1,150 factories, with the country’s garment industry seeing an 84% decline in orders.

Uddin says the cancellations had an immediate knock-on effect on his ability to pay his 20,000 workers, whose wages support more than 10,000 children and family members.

“My life has turned into a disaster movie,” he says. “It doesn’t really help that the brands are saying they will pay in the future. I paid salaries to my workers and employees for the months of March, April and May as well as an Eid festival bonus by taking loans from the bank, friends and family. But there is no more possibility of getting further help. Every day the factory is getting closer to the brink of extinction.”

Over the last few months he has also fallen behind on paying his utility bills. His bank will not lend him any money and his suppliers are demanding payment for the material they delivered just days before his business fell apart.

Cancelled orders at Denim Expert

Boxes of cancelled orders are piled high at Denim Expert. Photograph: Noor Alam/The Guardian

The pandemic has exposed the way in which fashion suppliers like Uddin carry much of the risk in the global garment production model.

Now, with shops reopening across the UK, many brands are beginning to re-order from their overseas suppliers.

Arcadia has said that with its outlets reopening, it will now reinstate its order for the £200,000 of finished product from Uddin’s factory.

Yet Uddin says that for many small businesses like his own, the damage has already been done.

“The global garment industry is based on a system of debt and mutual trust,” he says. “We have to raise loans on the back of previous invoices and pay for all the material, the wages, the costs of the factory and the shipping all upfront.”

“We can only raise an invoice when the goods are shipped and then the buyers have weeks before they have to pay us.”

Uddin says that he is now finding it impossible to fulfil orders for new buyers.

“The trust I have built up with my own suppliers and with the banks has been broken, and they will not work with me any more” he says.

Workers at Denim Expert

Workers’ wages at Denim Expert support about 10,000 family members. Photograph: Noor Alam/The Guardian

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has called on brands to honour their commitments.

“Since the situation has started to heal a bit, stores are reopening, and we hope brands would cooperate with their suppliers and take all necessary arrangements to settle the outstanding payments so that factories can survive here and continue to produce,” says Rubana Huq, its president.

Uddin’s business has been globally celebrated as an example of sustainable garment production, winning multiple awards and being cited by brands including Arcadia in their corporate social responsibility publicity.

“I would just like to say to people who are going to the shops this week, please remember those who have been left behind,” he says. “The worst thing is that these big fashion brands know the impact of what they have done. They understand what is going to happen to workers if they don’t pay what they owe, and they simply don’t care.”

A spokesperson for Peacocks said: “When the global crisis hit, we had already paid for the majority of future stock. At that point, we entered discussions with individual suppliers about the outstanding stock. We have now reached agreements with the vast majority of suppliers, and remain committed to finding a way ahead with the small number of remaining suppliers.”

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