What It’s like to Produce Garments in a Pandemic

Last Updated on March 31, 2022

Editor’s note: We might hear bits and pieces about how garment factories and workers have been affected by the pandemic, but what have things really been like?
Hannah Neumann is a former ethical fashion blogger who started up the sustainable, worker-led, manufacturing cooperative TELAstory in the Philippines. She kindly agreed to write this post, sharing how the past year has been for TELAstory and also what we and the apparel industry as a whole need to learn from this experience.

Early 2020 Covid-19 lockdown in Manila, Philippines, was eerily quiet. Roads were blockaded.  The only people out and about for essential errands were the one member per household holding government-issued paper passes. Police and military kept a vigilant eye out for unauthorized travellers and rule-violators. A full year later, we are still within one of the world’s longest and strictest quarantines, and still, there is no light at the end of the tunnel in sight. Yesterday, we hit a foreboding milestone in the country’s Coronavirus saga- the highest new case count in a single day. The situation isn’t improving, and no help is on the way. 

Manufacturing clothing here in the Philippines in the midst of a global pandemic has compounded every challenge we already faced as a less than two year old garment manufacturing business. Fighting industry standards to give more power and better profit to Filipina workers is a monumental task even in the best of circumstances– a global pandemic just added to our list of obstacles! 

TELAstory pre-pandemic

One Year Ago

Within the first week of lockdown in March 2020, TELAstory had to quickly pivot and come up with a new production model and business plan. By the second week of lockdown, we’d lost over 70% of 2020’s orders (either cancelled or delayed indefinitely), and without a substantial emergency fund or access to any government aid we knew we had to act quickly. Public transportation in our city was completely shut down, and none of us at TELAstory have cars. We quickly cleared out our manufacturing space and sent all of our machinery and equipment to our workers’ homes so they could work safely, and we started working on patterns for masks and PPE.

Sending photos of mask prototypes over facebook messenger, & a TELAstory seamstress working from home

We started a fundraiser to help pay for our workers’ wages while we sewed PPE for local hospitals and masks for our neighborhoods. We received a beautiful outpouring of support, but in a time of so much fear and need we only raised about $1300, just a little over a week’s salary for our full time employees. Selling masks was more effective, and we managed to keep afloat for several months by shipping box after box to the US and Australia. 

For many months, we questioned if we would even survive as a business. Moving from producing products together in a common space, with many hands and eyes to catch mistakes and collaborate on designs to handling production, design, and quality control remotely was a logistical nightmare. Without a vehicle of our own, we were spending far too much on motorcycle couriers ferrying materials back and forth. We carried massive boxes of product miles on foot to the nearest open shipping office since we couldn’t just hop in a taxi.

In our facebook messenger group chat, the TELAstory Titas (our seamstresses) sent GIFs; “every gising is a blessing!” (each new day is a blessing) in multicolored font. Another, accompanied by a smiling baby; “Keep safe. Smile, it will make you feel better. Pray, it will keep you strong”

Of course, the entire fashion industry was suffering, not just our small team. We watched as retailers’ sales dropped and brands struggled… the difference was that brands could pull out from orders (as we personally experienced), stop spending money, and in many cases, save themselves.

The pandemic exposed the broken system of the fashion industry right down to it’s ugly skeleton. Not only do the producers behind our clothes make the least amount of profit within the fashion supply chain, they also have the highest risk and least protection. 

What We Can Learn

Running a garment business in a pandemic has really driven home several points that I believe are crucially important to open up a dialogue on in response to the pandemic’s impact on producers; risk- sharing, profit margins, and collaborative and mutually respectful partnerships.

Sharing Risk

Remember the first two weeks of lockdown, when 70% of our booked orders disappeared? In the 4 weeks prior to the Philippines’ lockdown, in preparation for the next six months, TELAstory had just hired 3 new full time workers, purchased several new machines. We’d also recently moved our lease to a bigger and more expensive space. It was absolutely devastating to us as a business to have these elevated expenses after the pandemic hit. But that’s the way the fashion production industry works.

Kim Van Der Weerd of Manufactured podcast explains this beautifully in the context of larger factories in a recent explainer video– Manufacturers have to make “irreversible financial decisions” on hiring new employees, buying supplies, holding space in the production line, etc based on the orders that are forecasted by the clients, far before orders are finalized and contracts are signed. When disaster hits, who is hurt the most? We need to come up with a better system where producers have more power and the brands have more risk.

Profit Margins 

TELAstory pays some of the highest wages I know of within the small-scale sustainable manufacturing world here in the Philippines, which makes our profit margins extremely lean. This is the only way we can both pay our workers a TRUE living wage, and book clients. We’d love to have a bigger profit margin, as a company, but it’s just not feasible within the current system. Raise profit margins, and prices go up. When prices go up, clients go elsewhere- even clients focused on sustainability and fair wages. There will always be another ethical workshop or sustainable factory with a lower price.

Part of what makes it so difficult to raise prices to a more healthy profit margin (still modest, but enough to build up an emergency fund for our employees and invest in building better infrastructure), is the secrecy surrounding wages and lack of open dialogue, even between responsible brands. Banding together and establishing a better universal standard for what constitutes fair pricing would help reduce “race to the bottom” attitudes. In order for TELAstory to make a more fair profit, we need more transparency within the industry as a whole, not just from a select few players. 

Collaborative and Respectful Partnerships

Now more than ever, it’s so important for brands working with producers to be understanding and foster a strong mutually trusting and collaborative relationship with producers. Engaging in fashion as a brand or designer is an immense privilege. Having access to time to create and dream, access to build a supporter base of shoppers, having capital to place an order or access to fair-interest business loans… The burden of hard, low-compensation labor for fashion production falls mostly on the shoulders of black and brown women who live paycheck to paycheck.

There have been times that I’ve seen members of my team cry together over an impossible demand or from a brand, feeling more like machines than valued human beings. Clients often want us to cut corners, lower prices, pass less expense on to them. Garment workers are such an essential part of any brands’ story. We sew the $6.00 dress that enables a new ethical brand to sell it for $99.00. When there’s an issue with fabric supply, a pandemic shipping delay, or any number of issues, there’s little understanding and room for collaboration and mutual problem-solving.

In the wake of this pandemic, especially, I want to see more honoring of the difficult work that garments workers do for the profit of their clients. I want to hear more clients say “this is my budget, here is the maximum I can alot for fair-wage sewing costs” rather than “how low can you go?”. It is so essential to build up equitable treatment and compensation for players in every aspect of the garment industry. With privilege comes responsibility. 

Surviving and Looking Ahead

So, where is TELAstory at, now? We’re still here, we’re still fighting. Day to day, operations are still stunted by the effects of lockdown. Many of our local suppliers have been shut down or are constantly out of stock on essentials. We have to travel farther to find basic sewing supplies, or order from overseas. Without a vehicle, we still spend alot on safe and effective transportation, but we’ve found other areas to cut down on expenses. Many things in Manila are significantly more expensive than they were a year ago, from food to international shipping costs. 

Even though our local COVID situation has worsened, overseas orders have slowly increased as other countries begin to move toward normalcy. We’ve launched half a dozen brands in the last six months through our Launch Your Line program– the slowing of orders from regular clients gave us time to really focus on working with aspiring designers, whether or not they have any background in fashion, to produce some really beautiful collections- from responsibly made and well-fitting scrubs to a Filipino-heritage inspired line by a talented artist who designed her own textile prints! We’re also beginning to connect to a larger network of makers outside our own team (hence our name change from TELAstory to TELAstory Collective) to expand into accessories and home goods manufacturing.

Yes, the pandemic has brought us new challenges, but also new dreams for how we can dismantle elements of an outdated and unequal system and keep building something better in its place.

You can learn more about our work on our website or by following us on Instagram.

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