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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 4 June 2020

How surprise clothing boxes are keeping Bangladeshi garment workers from starvation

British buyers are being offered the chance to snap up a box of clothes at half price and help workers in Bangladesh
Garment workers return from a workplace as factories reopened after the government has eased coronavirus restriction in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Reuters

British fashion enthusiasts are helping to offload cancelled stock, paying laid-off Bangladeshi garment workers and getting a good deal into the bargain.

After lockdown measures were imposed across the world and all but essential stores closed by coronavirus measures, international retailers including Asos and New Look said they cancelled orders with garment makers.

Factory owners in Bangladesh, the biggest garment producer in the world after China, shut down thousands of factories and sent home up to one million workers with little or no pay.

But a new partnership between a Bangladeshi NGO and a British shopping app is enabling UK shoppers to buy a box of clothes personalised to them, for half the retail value, allowing wages to be paid to workers.

Mallzee, which lists clothes from 180 retailers on its app, is selling fashion boxes for £35 (Dh156.40) containing clothing worth twice that sum through its Lost Stock website. The sale of each box, which can be personalised by size and sex, feeds a family in Bangladesh for one week.

Bangladesh NGO the SAJIDA Foundation is overseeing the income from Lost Stock and ensuring the money goes straight to those who need it most.

The SAJIDA Foundation estimates more than $2 billion in orders were cancelled, leaving mountains of leftover stock. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said about 75,000 workers have not been paid for March and estimates tens of thousands more will not be paid wages owed to them.

The government has announced a $588 million aid package for its export sector to help pay employees. Garment manufacturers, which estimate they have lost almost $3 billion in exports since the start of April, said the funds were not enough. Foreign-owned firms and joint ventures are not eligible for payments.

“Cancelled orders have affected more than 1,000 factories and the lives of 2.27 million workers and their families,” said Muhymin Chowdhury, head of Challenge Fund and fundraising for SAJIDA, said.

“We are very pleased to partner with Lost Stock, whose approach helps redress the unfortunate failures of global brands to practise responsible sourcing. Every Lost Stock box sold will provide a food and hygiene package to support a family for a week.

“Additionally, Lost Stock purchases garment products at a fair price from Bangladeshi factories helping support them longer term.

The initiative has proved extremely popular since its launch last Monday, selling more than 30,000 boxes of clothing to British consumers. The team is hoping to sell 100,000 boxes by the end of 2020.

“With no safety net available for some of the poorest workers in the fashion supply chain we couldn’t sit back and do nothing – leaving families to starve and new clothing heading to landfill,” said Mallzee Chief Executive Cally Russell.

“Through Mallzee we have a relationship with more than 1.5 million UK shoppers, so we have come up with a way to enable them to save lives as they shop.”

The International Labour Organisation issued guidance on Saturday for the return of employees to workplaces, stating that appropriate measures should be taken to ensure employee safety.

“Unsafe work practices anywhere are a threat to both health and sustainable business, everywhere. So, before returning to work, workers must be confident that they will not be exposed to undue risks,” said Deborah Greenfield, ILO’s Deputy Director-General for Policy.

Workers and NGOs have expressed fear that some of Bangladesh’s clothing factories are not protecting staff after deciding to reopen earlier this month, which could lead to an explosion in coronavirus cases.

“Its impact could be worse than Rana Plaza,” activist Kalpona Akter told AFP in April, referring to the collapse of a garment factory complex in 2013 that killed 1,130 workers.

The country has 32,078 cases of coronavirus, and 452 have died.

Updated: May 23, 2020 10:00 PM