Inside a hot and cramped makeshift sweatshop, seventy-two women found themselves trapped, forced to make clothes from 7am to midnight, seven days a week. Workers wanted to leave, but they couldn’t. They had been deceived by traffickers who had promised them decent jobs, but instead had sold them into forced labor. The factory was surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards patrolled the property day and night. Some of these women had been there for as many as seven years – toiling to make clothes that would soon line the shelves of American retailers.
[In] 2021, garment workers in California were documented as making as little as $3 per hour.
Situations of exploitation like this one have occurred all around the world, but this particular case, known as the El Monte Thai Garment Slavery Case, unfolded just outside of Los Angeles, the center of the United States’ (U.S.) garment production, in 1995.
The El Monte Thai Garment Slavery Case was a landmark legal case that brought significant attention to the dire conditions faced by garment workers in the U.S. While this case led to improvements in California’s garment sector over the past three decades, as recently as 2021, garment workers in California were documented as making as little as $3 per hour – a fourth of California’s legally mandated minimum wage of $15.
Garment workers around the world regularly experience serious labor and human rights violations. Forced labor is among the most egregious, but instances of gender-based violence and harassment, wage theft, forced overtime, and other exploitative and illegal practices are rampant.
Over the decades, garment workers around the world have continued to fight for fair wages and safe working conditions by advocating for better laws to close the gaps that allow exploitation to persist. However, the increased complexity of supply chains over recent decades has led to a deeply fractured network of laws and responsibility, many of which allow brands to evade responsibility and leave workers with no mechanism to pursue redress if and when things go wrong.
[The FABRIC Act] would protect nearly 100,000 American garment workers…
As a result of decades of advocacy and campaigning by workers, organizations, responsible businesses, and citizens like ourselves, there has been growing recognition that existing legal frameworks are inadequate to address the scale of human rights abuses that persist throughout global supply chains. We are increasingly seeing legislative action that builds upon internationally agreed upon standards and aims to change the unbalanced power dynamics that allow exploitation to more easily exist.
This promising wave of legislation and fashion laws provides citizens, brands, and workers with an exciting opportunity to partner with our governments to bring forth the changes that we have been long advocating for.
INTERNATIONAL FRAMEWORKS – WHAT ARE THEY?
Over the past 100 years, the baseline of what is considered acceptable minimum standards of work around the world have been established through the International Labor Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency tasked with establishing labor standards and advocating for decent work. Each of these rights have been mutually agreed upon and adopted by workers, employers, and governments alike.
These rights are codified as the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and include the rights to: be paid fairly, work in a safe and healthy environment, join a union and collectively bargain, be protected against the use of child labor, and be protected from discrimination in the workplace.
For over 100 years, the U.S. has improved the strength of our labor institutions. It’s time to ensure these protections are updated to meet the current realities – Natasha Dolby
This collection of carefully designed standards represents an established consensus on what conditions are acceptable at work and serve as the baseline of standards that campaigners around the world have been advocating for. In fact, all 187 countries who are members of the ILO are obligated to respect these rights, though in reality, this is often not the case.
Building off of the Fundamental Principles and other human rights issues that have arisen due to the nature of global supply chains, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) serves as another key international framework. These principles were established in 2011 and are largely considered the first framework to receive widespread buy-in from the range of stakeholders found across global supply chains. They establish that:
- Governments have a responsibility to protect their workers;
- Businesses have the responsibility to respect the laws and regulations of the countries they operate in; and
- All parties are responsible for remediation, or repairing the harm, when things go wrong.
Using these widely-agreed upon frameworks as a launching point, governments around the world are now seeking to codify these standards into laws to better govern business practices within global supply chains. We’ve seen an exciting number of legislative developments in recent years that have the potential to rebalance power dynamics that disproportionately support businesses interests at the expense of workers around the world.
WHERE ARE WE SEEING PROMISING LEGISLATION?
For the past several years the European Union (E.U.) has been developing a Mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence Directive. This Directive, which could be adopted as soon as this fall, has the potential to change how companies are held accountable for their practices within supply chains around the world by placing some legal responsibility on parent companies based on the laws of the country they are headquartered in. This model challenges the common practice of “outsourcing responsibility” where brands or parent companies are not legally responsible for the practices of their subcontractors, even when brands or parent companies’ own actions contribute to the exploitation of workers at the other end of the supply chain. Mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence (MHRDD) laws require companies to conduct due diligence to identify where human rights violations may be prevalent throughout their supply chains and creates a legal obligation to prevent, mitigate, and remedy identified human rights and environmental harms. Failure to do so could result in both administrative penalties and civil liability. This type of legislation represents a shift in the legal obligations of companies because it requires brands and parent companies to accept some level of responsibility for the harmful actions of their suppliers when the actions are, or could be, reasonably known to the brand or parent company.
Individual countries within the E.U., such as France and Germany, have already adopted and started implementing versions of this law, and once the E.U. adopts the Directive as a whole, every nation within the E.U. will have two years to integrate the requirements of the Directive into their individual countries’ laws and begin enforcing the legislation.
While MHRDD is generally considered to be a positive development, workers and campaigners, such as Theresa Haas, Director of Global Strategies at Workers United, are cautious about it being a universal solution.
“Standards that are supposed to protect workers rights have existed for decades, but they have been ignored because of a lack of enforcement and consequences for rights abuses,” said Haas. “In order for any legislation to be effective at improving garment worker rights across the global supply chain there must be clear means and mechanisms for enforcement, independent complaint mechanisms that enable workers to file claims easily, and mandatory labor rights outcomes.”
Campaigners are concerned that the E.U. law is focused on the process of risk identification and mitigation, but may not provide any liability for actual outcomes for workers in the supply chain.
We’ve seen what can happen when brands develop processes without an end result for workers – and that is the same pitfall when it comes to due diligence. – Theresa Haas, Workers United
It is critical that this legislation, as well as any other legislation seeking to address labor exploitation throughout supply chains, effectively provides results for workers.
In addition to the E.U., we are also seeing some promising legal developments in the United States (U.S.). In 2021, with the support of the Garment Worker Center and other allies, workers finally won a long fight to establish third-party liability for wage theft in California. The Garment Worker Protection Act closes a key gap that has prevented workers from being able to seek legal accountability for the wrongs they experience due to sub-contracting, a common practice that enables brands to outsource liability throughout their supply chains. The landmark Act establishes a critical protection for garment workers in California who experience wage theft by enabling them to pursue recourse from brands who have outsourced to the companies that workers are employed by.
While this is a significant win for workers in California, unfortunately this protection does not extend to other states throughout the U.S. However, the Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change (FABRIC Act / S.4213), a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and in the House of Representatives by Representative Carolyn Maloney (NY), aims to address that. This law, if passed, would protect nearly 100,000 American garment workers and revitalize the garment industry in the United States by improving working conditions, reforming the piece-rate pay scale, and investing in domestic apparel production.
UNCLE SAM WANTS YOU (TO GET INVOLVED)!
While it may feel like policy making is an impenetrable process, in democracies such as the U.S. and the E.U., persistent advocacy is one of the biggest reasons why laws get passed. In fact, citizens are the most important piece of ensuring that strong legislation does get passed. The job of elected officials is to represent the interests of the citizens living in their states. However, elected officials don’t represent the ideas and solutions of their constituents if they don’t know what they are. While it is true that political decision making is often complicated by well-organized and well-funded groups representing the interests of businesses at the expense of workers, it is also true that these groups are using the same mechanisms available to all citizens to make their views known in our governments.
Over 275 organizations have endorsed the [FABRIC Act] so far…
For Natasha Dolby, a philanthropist and nonprofit executive, engaging in the political decision-making process is a right that she doesn’t take lightly. When she became an American citizen a decade ago, she immediately recognized the importance of ensuring that citizens actively participate in their democracy, a right that is enshrined in the US Constitution, by making their voices and views heard in the government.
“Lobbying is a basic right afforded to all US citizens, and yet, businesses outspend individuals in both time and money spent lobbying by the multitudes. This has resulted in businesses having an outweighed impact on our government,” said Dolby.
In order to counter this, it is critical that citizens step up our engagement. From calling our representatives, convening meetings with our elected officials, and educating both our community and our lawmakers – individuals can shift this imbalance.
“For US citizens, the FABRIC Act is a tangible policy objective that we should all invest in. For over 100 years, the U.S. has improved the strength of our labor institutions. It’s time to ensure these protections are updated to meet the current realities,” Dolby continued.
This is why Remake and hundreds of other organizations, businesses, and citizens are calling on our elected officials to pass the FABRIC Act. Over 275 organizations have endorsed the bill so far and on September 12, 2023, nearly 80 individuals went to Washington D.C. to speak with 20 different senators about the importance of this legislation.
If you haven’t already, we welcome you to visit the FABRIC Act’s website and join us in this movement.
Join the Movement (You Know You Want To)
Accountability in supply chains is critical to designing a future that works better for workers everywhere – including in the U.S. As a result of years of advocacy and campaigning by workers, consumers, organizations, and countless others, pressure to regulate how companies interact within global supply chains has been increasing. We are witnessing a unique moment, where dissatisfaction with the status quo is leading to action through new laws that aim to close these gaps.
While we are thrilled to see this change unfolding, its success is not guaranteed. It’s possible that these promising pieces of legislation are not passed. It’s possible that they become diluted during the policy making process and are ineffective. It’s possible that they won’t deliver the outcomes we hope for because they aren’t enforced. But, just as these outcomes are possibilities, so is the possibility that they do get passed. A future where fashion exists without forced labor, violence and harassment, wage theft, and countless other violations of workers’ rights is not only possible, but imperative.
We envision a world where workers are compensated fairly. Where they can exercise their rights and be safe at work. Where “fashion” is no longer synonymous with rampant violations of workers’ rights. More than ever, we need citizens to join us in raising our voices to our policy makers. The future we aspire for is possible. We hope you will join us!