An Interview with Awamaki: Racial Inequity and The Global Fashion Supply Chain During Covid-19
*Interview conducted in May, quotes translated from original Spanish
The fashion world does not exist in a vacuum. Neither does Covid-19. Like everything, fashion interacts with, is influenced by, and has the power to challenge the entrenched systems in which we operate, including systemic racism. Just as Covid-19 has disproportionately affected Black and Indigenous communities in the United States, it also disproportionately affects many communities of color that rely on the global fashion supply chain for the majority of their income.
Many major fashion corporations are abandoning the supply chain workers who make their businesses possible in the first place (with many not even paying workers for work they’ve already done). Meanwhile, some smaller organizations, like the Peru-based NGO Awamaki, are doubling down on their efforts to support their partner artisans. We got in contact with Veronica, marketing and communications director for Awamaki, to discuss how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the Indigenous women with whom Awamaki works, and to learn more about how Awamaki is supporting their partners.
In the rural Andean villages surrounding the town Ollantaytambo, Covid-19 has severely restricted access to vital resources. “The two biggest challenges,” says Veronica, “are the loss of work and access to the markets of Ollantaytambo, and obtaining food [the artisans] can’t get in their villages.” The challenge of decreased access also creates barriers to education. “Children have to study from home through a radio program (if there’s connection). This impedes the families’ ability to follow routine, but they help each other.” To support themselves and their families, the women are, of course, staying inside, but quarantine is difficult. They don’t get together between the cooperatives (many women have family in other cooperatives). Naturally, there is a lot of sadness.
“[Quarantine] is difficult for them,” but there are, however, small comforts. “Apart from the sadness and frustration about their income, they are grateful for the power to have a blue sky and clean air at their altitude, compared to the people in the city who are enclosed inside.” The fieldwork the women do is also largely unchanged.
The greatest needs right now are “provisions, food like carrots, tomatoes, onions, which they cannot grow that high up. [The women] also demonstrate anxiety for their children’s studies. Virtual schooling in the communities does not function very well; it seems there is not very good connection nor space where the kids can concentrate on their work.”
In addition to the effects on everyday life and access to provisions and education, covid has affected the economic situation of Awamaki’s partner artisans “incredibly strongly. The women and their husbands (many of whom work on the Inca Trail, in tourism) don’t have any income right now. There is monetary help from the government that some families have received, but others have not.” On the textile side of things, it is difficult to continue with the textile requests, especially because the physical store where they can sell is closed.
Just as all members of the community have shifted their focus to lending a hand to help each other directly (relying on an important cultural concept called ayni, or reciprocity), Awamaki has also changed its operations with a major emphasis on “direct support to the artisans with provisions.” By May, Awamaki had already devoted “a total of 96 baskets (in the communities of Patacancha and Kelkanka) with provisions for the women and their families. We have done interviews so they can tell us their situation and necessities and we are evaluating what to implement in a second run.” Awamaki is still sending out these baskets to the communities they work with—if you would like to support their work, you can donate to their emergency Covid relief fund here, or shop their products online here.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only widened the disparities already present in our global fashion supply chain. Everywhere, the pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in our social systems; communities of color and low-income communities are suffering the most. The global fashion supply chain depends heavily on some of the world’s most vulnerable and impoverished communities, and it is crucial now more than ever that we recognize these dynamics in order to challenge them and uplift vulnerable peoples.