Above video: garment worker testimonial video
Just over one year ago, the Covid 19 pandemic hit the world, setting off a series of seismic reactions within the global fashion industry supply chain. Brick and mortar stores selling apparel were forced to shut down to maintain social distancing; consumer purchases plummeted. Apparel brands and retailers responded by suspending or cancelling orders to their suppliers around the world. To cut costs even more, they refused to pay for orders already shipped, completed, or in production. In addition, many brands demanded discounts from or delayed payments to their suppliers, relying on the “force majeure” clause in their contracts to shed responsibility for any financial loss incurred.
Factory owners scrambled to stay in business by firing, suspending workers, or reducing their pay. From March to May, workers lost 3-6 billion dollars in legally owed wages, which left garment workers exposed to widespread hunger and fear of human trafficking and gender-based violence.
ONE YEAR LATER
One year later, the situation for garment workers has only gotten worse. “This is the biggest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime,” said Ayesha Barenblat, Remake’s CEO at a recent Remake press conference that brought together labor organizers, suppliers, and research experts in a discussion of the problems and solutions facing apparel workers and suppliers during the Covid crisis Writer and stylist Aja Barber moderated the panel.
According to Scott Nova, director of the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), and one of the guests at the press conference, the current crisis is built into global apparel supply chains themselves. These supply chains are based on “grossly inadequate sub poverty wages for garment workers across the world. Very few garment workers had a single penny saved” on the eve of the pandemic, despite working long hours for years. They were “already borrowing money to buy the bare necessities their wages didn’t support.”
“We’ve seen a 21% decline in garment worker wages across the globe while the top 20 best performing brands have seen an 11% increase in their market cap. None of the most profitable brands put in any money for garment workers’ severance or relief except on a case-by-case basis,” Barenblat added.
Another press conference guest, Khalid Mahmood, director of the Labour Education Foundation in Pakistan, laid out the human rights violations to apparel workers created by the brand-led supply chain in his country. The stories of Pakistan’s garment workers mirror those of many garment workers throughout the Global South as well as in North America and Europe.
“Before Covid, a majority of garment industry workers in Pakistan were piece rate workers. Only 20% could say that they were permanent contract workers.” The rest were paid by the piece or worked for daily wages. Very few of Pakistan’s big supplier companies paid the minimum wage as per the law. “Normally they had 12 hour shifts and 4 hours of overtime but they were not paid the double rate for overtime work.”
There are no real unions in Pakistan’s garment industry, or collective bargaining. Workers, some of whom are trying to organize, are often subject threats and violence.
The Covid pandemic brought strikes by workers in major cities when the factories reopened after the lockdown. “We have seen violence against workers in Karachi when they demanded wages owed to them. This was always happening.”
Mahmoud’s organization went into communities where workers lived. “Even after schools opened, workers had to stop their children from going to school because they could not pay the fee asked.”
Factories have thrown workers out of jobs by the hundreds. One big factory in Pakistan that had asked more than 3,000 employees to go back to work started recruiting workers on a temporary basis after a couple of months. “These were permanent workers who were asked to rejoin on contract. Some workers were reemployed for half the piece rate.”
“This hiring and firing of workers and putting workers on more precarious contracts means that suppliers don’t have to pay into social safety nets, and when factories shut down, as they are doing, then workers are left with nothing,” said Barenblat. “A lot of these countries don’t have protections in place.”
She also brought up the impact of the virus itself on the health and safety of workers.
“We have seen massive outbreaks in Leicester, LA Apparel in Los Angeles, Brandix in Sri Lanka. As the virus hits workers who are making our PPE—and our sweatpants — there is nothing in terms of financial relief or medical support.”
One year into the pandemic, suppliers are struggling too. Another participant in the press conference was Zaki Saleemi, Vice President of Crescent Bahuman (CBL), a denim facility in Pakistan that wants to make every effort to be part of a more ethical supply chain. He stated, “We did lose capacity, which means you’re laying off people, you’re not functioning at a fiscal optimum.” CBL operated at around 70% capacity during the first months of the pandemic. The company is doing better now but they’re not seeing the flow of orders the way they did before COVID 19. In addition, they’re “seeing pressures in pricing, order sizes and the number of styles coming in.”
These pressures from brands fly in the face of their recent promises to “Build Back Better” one year after the pandemic, Barenblat pointed out.
BUILDING BACK BETTER
“So many sustainable fashion panels and conversations have no voices from the global south, no voices from producing countries, no people close to the pain of the pandemic and brands’ purchasing practices.” Barenblat cited the Copenhagen fashion summit. “I’ve seen what the convening the brands have done, the ‘Call to Action.’ For too long, these multi-stakeholder initiatives, brand paid for and brand led, have controlled the conversation and we have seen very little progress.”
According to Barenblat, the first concrete action that brands need to take is to pay for their orders. There is still a long list of brands and retailers that have yet to do so. Brands also need to take a much tougher stance on gender-based violence and fear of retribution. “We know that there is military junta [in Myanmar] going door to door hunting down labor organizers. Brands have been largely complicit and quiet.” She also cited a rape case at an H&M facility and the criminal charges faced by a sewist for Kate Spade and other brands in Cambodia after she posted a message on facebook. “Keeping workers safe and ensuring that severance and back wages are paid are paramount,” said Barenblat.
Scott Nova agreed that brand-led voluntary self-regulation of their own supply chains is never going to deliver meaningful labor rights protections for workers. “If we want brands and retailers to behave responsibly, we need to get it in writing.”
He saw a “move toward regulation defined by enforceable agreements between brands and the unions that represent workers” as the best way to bring about positive change and cited the Bangladesh Accord as a model to follow.
“Two and a half million garment workers are now working in vastly safer factories than they were in 2013 when the Accord began. That’s real change that effects the lives of workers. We need to apply that model of enforceable agreements that obligate brands and retailers to pay a fair price to suppliers so it is possible for suppliers to maintain decent conditions and good wages.”
Journalist Elizabeth Cline spoke of efforts by global suppliers to do just that.
Transformers Foundation, a coalition of denim suppliers from around the world are working to reform the supply chain in the denim industry to include, among other practices, binding agreements among every key stakeholder, including brands and retailers, to abide by an ethical code of conduct that ensures that workers’ rights are upheld.
In collaboration with various global stakeholders, the STAR Network (Sustainable Textile of the Asian Region), GIZ FABRIC, IAF (International Apparel Federation) and Better Buying are “creating a safe space for manufacturers to jointly draft a set of minimum expectations and outline recommendations and best practices related to payment and delivery conditions” in the garment industry.
Kline also noted that a working group of the American Bar Association has already drafted model contract clauses and buyer codes of conduct that would strengthen contracts between brands or retailers and suppliers.
“There are a lot of suppliers, often competitors, now coming together,” said Barenblat. “They’re saying ‘in some ways we’re being pitted against each other. What can we do from a contractual standpoint? What can we do about coming together and really pushing back on this power?’”
LONG TERM: ENFORCEABLE COMMITMENTS
Nova’s long-term vision for the future was “enforceable commitments from brands and retailers made to unions sitting across the table in real negotiations.” He also saw the need for these kinds of negotiations at the factory level. “There are very few functioning unions and virtually no collective bargaining agreements in most countries across the globe despite the fact that all the brands and retailers have codes of conduct ostensibly to protect the right to organize and freedom of association.”
“If we had enforceable global agreements obligating brands and retailers to treat their suppliers fairly, pay fair prices, only do business with suppliers that meet labor standards, and if we had genuine collective bargaining at the workplace level, we’d have a radically different garment industry with decent conditions and wages for the tens of millions of workers whose livelihoods depend on this industry.”
Remake’s recent #PayHer Call to Action week was also focused on living wages, binding agreements, and regulations. “That’s where we’ve seen true progress,” said Barenblat. For example, Remake supports the Garment Worker Protection Act, Senate Bill 62 in California, because it would ensure that brands and manufacturers have joint responsibility to make sure that workers are paid a minimum wage.
“The only time we make inroads is when we have better contracts in place, when we are addressing this asymmetry of power, when we have binding agreements, like the Accord.” To Barenblat, “the only way for us to build back better is to center workers.”