All over the world, workers in the fashion industry are facing destitution, being laid off, or being forced to work in unsafe, life-threatening conditions. It’s times like this when we see the fragility of the global supply chain and the true interests of big fashion companies around the world. But what can we do, and where do we go from here?
In a recent webinar, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an African-American academic and writer, said this: “The usual course of action […] is to ignore the conditions of poverty and hardship outside of the unusual circumstances produced by a crisis. Within the status quo, the lives of working-class people are hidden. There are times, typically in the midst of a crisis, when the true character of our society reveals itself, and the brutality of our social hierarchy is laid bare.” She was referring to the US, but her words are universally applicable. And they are especially salient now, as we see the fashion industry fail its own backbone. Here’s how.
Major fashion brands are cancelling orders and stopping payments, shirking responsibility towards its global supply chain.
According to Fashion Revolution, in the global fashion industry, it is common for brands to pay their suppliers weeks or months after delivery, rather than upon order. Hence, suppliers usually pay upfront for the materials used to make the products, incurring cost while waiting for incoming payments. Since the global pandemic has caused sales to drop over the past few weeks worldwide, many major fashion brands and retailers are cancelling orders and stopping payments, even when the work has already been done. Bloomberg reports that about 1,089 garment factories in Bangladesh have had orders cancelled due to the outbreak, amounting to $1.5 billion lost.
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We now have names of brands withholding money owed to garment factories in Bangladesh as well as the amount owed. Please share. The sums are staggering. These factories and workers can’t withstand this. PennState / WRC has surveyed factories and millions of workers have been sent home, often without pay because the factories are out of money. I’ve heard the same info directly from factory owners and activists there. As of this AM, @pvh @hm and @marksandspencer have agreed to pay for any in-process orders. Some context here: This is money contractually owed to factories for already completed work or for fabric already ordered. We understand brands are in crisis but they can’t shift the financial burden onto the supply chain, especially not when most have reported hundreds of millions if not billions in profit in recent years. ??? Keep an eye on @remakeourworld as they launch a new campaign to target the other brands. Ask these brands to #payup #payupfashion for these orders and to help support garment workers through factory closures due to #coronavirus. Bangladesh doesn’t have unemployment insurance and many workers are reporting being laid off without pay. ??? This is also happening in other countries, including India, Myanmar, Cambodia, the USA and this work is just beginning and extends to all vulnerable supply chain workers. Follow @asia_floor_wage_alliance and @garmentworkercenter @remakeourworld @fash_rev and Worker Rights Consortium to keep up with what’s going on. Some 50 million garment workers lives are on the line in this crisis globally. #payupfashion #covid19relieffund #ethicalfashion #payupross #garmentworker #essentialworkers #laborrights #workerrights #ethicalstyle #consciousliving
Who faces the brunt of this impact? The global supply chain. AWAJ Foundation says that many factories in Bangladesh are shutting down indefinitely. Labour Behind the Label estimates that 10% of factories in Yangon, Myanmar are closed. Factories are laying off their workers in droves, leaving workers with no income. Global trade union IndustriALL says that millions of workers around the world have already lost their jobs because of the virus. A report released Friday by Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights confirms this and adds that these workers are mostly women from rural areas. And brands are sending them home without paying them the wages or rightful severance pay. Labour experts are saying that big fashion retailers are resorting to “force majeure” clauses in their contracts (usually used in case of natural disasters or war) to justify not paying up.
On top of that, garment workers don’t have social safety nets nor savings to help them through this crisis. Nazma Akter, executive director of AWAJ explains: “These workers now don’t know how they will take care of their families in the coming days – how they will manage costs for food, rent and other necessities. They can’t even imagine what they’ll do if they or a family member needs medical treatment for COVID-19. The meagre income these workers earned was barely enough to cover their living costs, and as a result, they have little to no savings set aside to deal with a crisis such as this.”
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⚠️ The people who make our clothes are in crisis, too ⚠️ As the world faces this pandemic in unified isolation, we at #FashionRevolution aim to shed a light on how the unfolding situation is affecting the people who make our clothes. Retailers are shutting their doors around the world, encouraging their customers to shop online instead. Yet the reality is that as we are forced to stay in our homes many of us are financially burdened by layoffs or new childcare responsibilities, and the desire to buy new clothes feels like a distant dream. While we have been encouraging an end to overconsumption for many years, we also know that in the face of this unexpected halt in manufacturing, it is the most vulnerable, lowest paid people in the fashion supply chain that feel the worst effects. IndustriALL, the global trade union which works to give workers around the world a voice, says that millions of garment makers have already lost their jobs as a result of the virus and have no access to social or financial safety nets to help them weather this storm. Writing for the Business of Fashion, Bangladeshi garment manufacturer Mostafiz Uddin reminds us, “Poverty is a killer too, and many more people die from poverty than from COVID-19”. In response to the pandemic, many major fashion brands and retailers are cancelling orders and stopping payments for orders already placed, even when the work has already been done, taking no responsibility for the impact this has on the people working in their supply chains. Factories are left with little choice but to destroy or keep hold of unwanted goods already made and lay off their workers in droves. ⁉️ What can we do ⁉️ On our blog, we’ve outlined how you can help take action for workers, including a new email template we can all send to the brands we love, demanding that they defend the human rights of the people who make our clothes. Read the full post at the link in our bio, ask #WhoMadeMyClothes? And help us support the people who make our clothes.
On whom do we pin the blame?
Should we blame factories for laying off their workers? Certainly, employers should be taking care of their employees and making sure that workers at least preserve their jobs. But this pandemic exposes the reality of the fashion industry, its power imbalances, and shows how factories have no choice.
The dual pressures of churning out more and more collections while searching for the lowest costs create an industry that outsources its production, invisibilizing the process of making clothes. The industry turns a blind eye to the continuous exploitation of its garment workers, so long as they can fulfil orders and cut costs. Because production happens abroad, major fashion brands wash their hands off negotiating rights, making it a problem of the countries (and governments) in which the operations are based. Despite calls over the years from consumers to increase transparency, conduct audits, ensure fair, living wages, little has changed. Profits continue to accumulate at the top, leaving those at the bottom to suffer, especially in times like these.
Factories, desperate for business after the crisis, will do anything to maintain a working relationship with the major retailers. And garment workers, with no way (nor time to spare) to unionise, will just have to wait until this global pandemic ends. But they may not even survive the outbreak, and poverty, as we know, kills more people than the coronavirus does. Ultimately, factories represent nothing more than contracts, garment workers’ wages represent costs. It’s business, major fashion brands will say. Garment workers are just collateral damage.
Factories are closing, but warehouses remain open, which isn’t good either.
Fashion journalist Lucy Siegle points out that “Online #fastfashion brands are going for it,” in her latest Instagram post with screenshots of brands that are pushing sales, declaring business-as-usual. Among them are ASOS, Pretty Little Thing, Boohoo.com, and more. How are they staying open?
GMB Union reports that ASOS are “playing Russian roulette with people’s lives”. They are refusing to enforce social distancing in packed warehouses. And in one such warehouse, ASOS has reportedly packed 4,000 workers together in close proximity. The workers are concerned that brands are putting profits before their health in this crisis. While some brands, like Next, have bowed to public pressure, many fast-fashion retailers’ warehouses still remain open. H&M, of course, is also on that list, with one of its warehouses in the UK still remaining open. Around 200 people are told to go in every day, to maintain H&M’s online operations. (Given that their physical stores are closed, this is its way of coping.)
With the global pandemic, workers in the fashion industry won’t be able to unionise to fight the injustices they face.
For warehouse workers and garment workers alike, the ideal scenario in this situation would be to allow workers to unionise. Aside from, obviously, the major fashion brands and retailers taking proactive, ethical steps. (But that’s clearly not happening.) In this situation, however, it is dangerous for workers to gather in large groups to collectively bargain a better deal for themselves. Doing so will only worsen the pandemic in their own communities.
Instead of stepping up to the plate and announcing measures to safeguard the workers and their jobs, however, employers are precisely using this argument as an excuse to cut wages, layoff workers and stop workers from forming unions. Union activists in El Salvador and Honduras are trying to protect garment workers, and have no choice but to gear up for action at the end of the month. Why? Because even though the government has required employers to pay garment workers for the time closed, union leaders are anticipating it won’t happen. And that the workers won’t be rehired later on.
And it’s not just fast fashion that’s making unethical decisions. Everlane, an ethical brand that prides itself on “radical transparency”, suddenly laid off 222 workers, despite previously reassuring them that the company was “stronger than ever”, leading staffers to believe that nothing too drastic would happen. Not only that, but it also turns out that nearly every worker who was working to get the Everlane Union recognised (to prevent things like this from happening) was among those being fired. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders even tweeted, “using this health and economic crisis to union bust is morally unacceptable.”
Something is very wrong with the fashion industry.
Between mass-firing garment workers, forcing warehouses to stay open, and busting or ignoring unions, it is clear that the fashion industry needs to get its act together. Something is very wrong. As explained earlier, there are severe power imbalances within the fashion industry. But there are ways to correct that.
Worker Rights Consortium published a white paper titled “Who will bail out the workers?” calling for immediate action. It demands that we hold brands and retailers accountable and make them commit to a “responsible exit”. Additionally, it also demands a collective response. We’re talking international financial institutions, intergovernmental bodies, and governments of wealthier nations to maintain workers’ income. “Wealthy countries are about to mobilize trillions of dollars to staunch the domestic economic damage from Covid-19,” it writes. “If international financial commitments can be secured that are equivalent to a tiny fraction of those amounts, this will be enough to provide vital assistance across manufacturing supply chains—keeping tens of millions of workers, hundreds of millions of their family members, and tens of thousands of businesses afloat.”
Why should wealthy nations be responsible? For one, consumers can enjoy ever-reduced prices of garments because they’re not the ones paying the price. They—we—never have been. The workers at the bottom of the fashion industry hierarchy pay. And it’s times like these that they pay the most. But it’s not just the wealthy nations who should be responsible, it’s the wealthy billionaires. The fashion billionaires. Who have built their empire off of the backs of oppression, exploitation and the struggle of the working class. Where are they now? What are they doing with their accumulated profits?
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/ #FastFashion — We’re writing this notice to inform you that your OVERDUE on paying livable wages with opportunities for upward mobility and sustainable supply chains. ⏳ Time is up! Support our #MakersFund and actively choose to make a difference, brands like @hm and @everlane we’re looking at you! #PayUpEverlane #PayUpHM / Tag brands you want to hold accountable and ? a final notice to in our comments ⬇️
The fashion industry needs a revolution.
Beyond an immediate response to this crisis, the fashion industry needs to rethink everything. The reason why we’re seeing such catastrophic outcomes is not just because of the global pandemic. Indeed, the global pandemic merely reveals the deep inequalities that exist within the industry, that have been there all along. And now that we see it, we have to fix it.
We can’t have a fashion industry with fashion billionaires on one end, and poor garment workers on the other. As fashion journalist Aja Barber points out, there are four billionaires in the H&M family. The founder of Uniqlo and the man that started Zara? Also billionaires. The family that started Walmart has seven billionaires. The owners of Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo.com? Same family, and all billionaires. Garment workers? They’re among some of the poorest people on the planet.
And yet, garment workers, warehouse workers, delivery workers, etc., are all on the frontlines. First to be laid off, put in dangerous conditions, and surely, first to be left to die. These people are part of a system that puts profit over people. An industry that breaks up its supply chain so much that the brands don’t even know most of their workers. An industry that forces managers to be inhumane to their staffers, and even more so during times of crises. And on top of it all: an industry that thrives upon creating insatiable consumer appetite for more and more collections. Which are thrown out once the garments are no longer trendy. Consumers are blind to the harsh realities behind who makes their clothes.
The revolution begins now.
We must collectively work towards the greater change the industry needs. And it starts by taking immediate action to prevent further devastation to workers’ lives now. Start by keeping up with Clean Clothes Campaign’s live blog, which provides daily updates on how the global pandemic is affecting garment workers in supply chains. Follow Remake, a nonprofit organisation that’s reporting daily on the issue too.
Feel free to boycott the major fashion brands and retailers and support local businesses instead. But don’t forget that boycotts aren’t enough—they need to hear that consumers care about change. Use your voice. Send emails to brands (use the template from Fashion Revolution here) and signal boost on Instagram. Raise awareness about how the fashion industry is exploiting its workers.
Demand an emergency COVID-19 relief fund by sharing Remake’s Instagram post. Or donate to existing funds, like the Garment Worker Center’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for LA Garment Workers, and No Sweat’s Emergency Appeal Garment Worker Solidarity Fund.
Ultimately, we’re all working towards the greater goal. We’re in the business of envisioning and creating a fashion industry that protects the rights of those who prop it up. Whether or not there is a global pandemic. Join the Fashion Revolution, and get involved with your local Fashion Revolution organisation in the upcoming Fashion Revolution Week from 20th – 26th April.
Image credits: Solidarity Center via Flickr