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Pandemic crushes global supply chains, workers at both ends

During the summer of 2020, Fuller Project reporter Louise Donovan began looking into Lesotho’s garment industry as the coronavirus pandemic rapidly crushed the global supply chain, including in the small landlocked country in southern Africa, and upended livelihoods for millions of workers around the world. 

J.C. Penney filed for bankruptcy and began closing over 150 stores across the U.S. around the same time. In speaking with several workers unions, Donovan learned that one garment factory in Lesotho had laid off staff specifically due to limited orders from J.C. Penney. While the collapse of the global garment industry during the pandemic had been reported on, no one had yet directly linked two women on each end of this crumbling supply chain: One in America, anxious about the impact of store closures, and another some 10,000 miles away, in Lesotho, with no income and living off church donations.

In a bid to understand how these two lives had been affected, Donovan began looking for sources. She spoke with 53-year-old Matefo Litali, a veteran seamstress, after a Lesotho-based workers union put them in touch. Her search for a former J.C. Penney employee proved tougher. Many women didn’t want to jeopardize their severance pay by talking to a journalist on-the-record. After trawling Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook and Instagram with little success, she eventually switched to TikTok. Here she found videos uploaded by Alexandra Orozco, a 22-year-old freight team associate who was documenting – and, arguably, processing – the closure of her J.C. Penney store in Delano, California, online.

The authorities in Lesotho don’t compel garment factories to publish statistics on job cuts and many factory owners are not particularly forthcoming with this information. As the country is a lesser-known garment powerhouse compared to China or Bangladesh, there is simply less research conducted by labor rights organizations and groups. Donovan spent weeks collecting data from several workers’ unions and researchers to understand the depth of layoffs across the country’s some 50-plus garment factories.

When a big American retailer crumbles, such as J.C. Penney, the fallout across the globe is huge — and women are disproportionately impacted. Some 80% of J.C. Penney employees are female, according to the most recently available data from 2016. Women also make up the vast majority of garment workers around the world. 

The Associated Press published the story, and it was picked up by more than 100 news outlets globally, including in Lesotho, and within the U.S., including The Washington Post and ABC, reaching an estimated 1.56 million readers. Readers also sent messages of support and encouragement to Alexandra, the former J.C. Penney employee in California.

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