In 2020, fast fashion brands were brought under scrutiny for cancelling orders without notice and failing to pay their globally outsourced garment workers. As a response to public pressure through the #PayUp campaign, over 20 major brands committed to paying back garment workers for previously cancelled orders. But for brands, this seems to be part of a playbook of post factum fixes, and not any real commitment to a platform of ethical responsibility.

In April 2021, it is once again being reported that brands are cancelling orders at a massive scale — a move that hits especially hard given the deadly second-wave of COVID-19 sweeping through manufacturer countries. Among the hardest hit by the combined blow of the pandemic and order cancellations is India, which is now reporting averages of 300,000 new cases of COVID-19 and over 2,000 deaths daily. The total cases in India average 24.7 million as of May 15, 2021.

Conditions among Indian garment workers have culminated to a point of life or death.

The devastating resurgence of COVID-19 cases in India only escalated the extensive economic impact of a renewed wave of order cancellations in April. And given that the garment manufacturing sector comprises nearly 15% of the country’s export earnings, in addition to being India’s second largest employer, brands’ cancelling contracts with these garment manufacturers has had a heavy disturbance on not just profit margins, but also labor patterns and quality of life within the country. The Asia Floor Wage Alliance reports that conditions among Indian garment workers have culminated to a point of life or death, with manufacturing regions in India “facing a medical crisis with more than 1500 garment, textile, and leather workers reporting a desperate need for relief funds — as they either have Covid-19 or have close relatives who have Covid-19 and are unable to report to work.”

Make a Donation — Direct Relief for Garment Makers

For those wanting to help provide direct relief to garment makers in India, donations can be made to the PayUp Fashion GoFundMe. 100% of donations will go to direct relief for garment makers — and in the case of Indian garment makers, will help provide urgently needed oxygen and medical supplies.

The crisis in India has worsened over the last week with at least five garment workers passing away in Bengaluru from Covid-19. It is reported that they sewed for brands like Columbia Sportswear and H&M in Shahi 8. The Union KOOGU is starting negotiations with the supplier to discuss this incident. Additionally, more than 50 garment workers working for factories of brands like Inditex have been infected over a few days (many of the brands are yet to be identified). Currently, the unions and workers’ families are in desperate need of financial support.

COVID-19’s impact on India’s garment factory workers

India’s role on the global garment manufacturing stage is undeniable. It is sixth in the world for exporting textiles, and the second-largest producer of silk in the world. As such, it employs 51 million people directly through its factories, and manufacturing sites. However, since 2020, these 51 million garment workers have been subject to exorbitantly increased levels of wage theft, food insecurity, and unstable living conditions.

Given the growing globalized economy, countries like India provide fast fashion brands a ready stream of cheap labour power. As a result, fast fashion brands have long outsourced their production to countries like India, signing contracts with Indian garment manufacturers which outline delivery of inventory within a certain specified time frame. These time frames are generally quite short, as inventory sells in accordance to trend cycles (which in the internet age have been, in the mildest terms, volatile). Because of the quick product turnover rate, workers are forced to work around the clock to deliver. It’s a system that’s lent itself to potential labor abuse through harsh working conditions.

The pandemic’s economic impact has exacerbated these pre-existing labour abuses. Since 2020, fast fashion brands have been cancelling orders to circumvent a loss of in-person sales, and in the process have been robbing garment workers of wages for work they have already completed.

Latha M (39), a mother of two, said in a statement to Firstpost: “I worked in a garment factory in Uttarahalli, Bengaluru, for three years. I had to walk for 15 minutes and then take a bus. Transportation expenses cut into my meagre salary of Rs 4,800 a month. I was paid Rs 120 for overtime and Rs 100 if I had 100 percent attendance. So I pushed myself and didn’t miss work, no matter what. My wages were never raised even after putting in so much work; only workload mounted, so much that it finally took a toll on my health, and I had to take a week’s leave. When I resumed work, I was sacked. Those really were the worst days of my life…”

Latha’s story is not an anomaly.

In fact, ILO reporting from 2015 lays out the common practice of working overtime: “A clear majority (79%) said that they were required by their employer to work more hours or days than was initially agreed, either on an occasional (41%) or regular (38%) basis. Two-thirds said they could not refuse to undertake this extra work. Production targets were fixed for 85% of current worker respondents. Reported overtime requirements were even higher among the former workers: 19 (out of 51) usually worked 10 hours or more per day, 48 sometimes or often had to work longer than initially agreed and 46 had fixed production targets to meet. The penalties for not meeting the targets or doing the required overtime were similar for both groups of workers, most commonly verbal abuse and threats from the supervisor or manager; physical abuse and beatings were much less common, but nonetheless present.”Insights into working conditions in India’s garment industry 

In a factory system where workers are already underpaid, cancelling orders has the added effect of increasing food insecurity and is directly correlated to rising levels of union-busting activities and gender-based violence against garment workers.

The pandemic’s economic impact has exacerbated these pre-existing labour abuses. Since 2020, fast fashion brands have been cancelling orders to circumvent a loss of in-person sales, and in the process have been robbing garment workers of wages for work they have already completed given their contract requirements to produce within a shorter time frame. In a factory system where workers are already underpaid, cancelling orders has the added effect of increasing food insecurity and is directly correlated to rising levels of union-busting activities and gender-based violence against garment workers. These issues of gender violence, forced labor and labor abuse were brought to media attention in February of 2021, following the case of Jeyasre Kathiravel, a garment worker for an H&M supplier factory, Natchi Apparels, in Tamil Nadu. Ms. Kathiravel was murdered by her supervisor who had been sexually abusing her repeatedly in the months prior to her death. The family says she “felt powerless to prevent the abuse from continuing.

Although brands like H&M, Zara, Nike, Uniqlo, etc., committed to #PayUp for cancelled orders in 2020, they have not yet committed to the other six actions items called for by the PayUp Fashion campaign — namely:

1) keeping workers safe by signing on to an Accord extension and paying into a severance fund, 

2) making supply chains transparent and traceable,

3) giving workers methods for legal recourse to address labor and workplace issues, 

4) signing enforceable contracts to hold brands accountable for outsourcing chains, 

5) ending starvation wages, 

6) maintaining ethical practices by helping to pass laws that provide garment worker protections.

Brands that have only committed to paying back wages for cancelled orders are taking the PR-mandated approach of addressing ethical production. That is, retroactively patching up their mistakes. While this is the bare minimum, it is in no way indicative of a truly responsible and ethical brand platform.

Paying up temporarily gives garment workers back the wages that were stolen from them, but it does not address a larger issue of traceability within the garment manufacturing industry nor prevent similar situations from arising again in the future.

COVID-19’s Impact on India’s migrant garment workers

India’s 51 million garment workers in factories are just one side of the industry. The larger portion of garment manufacturing in India is done through informal economies, that is, working through subcontracting chains, self-employment, contract labor, and household labor. And with the estimated total 450 million workers in India’s informal economy, at least 100 million are migrant workers who travel from rural to urban areas in search of work.

It is these migrant workers who have undeniably seen the worst of the pandemic’s effects. Although under the Indian Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act of 1979, migrant workers were meant to be regulated by the Indian government, the pandemic has brought to light the problem of a mass of unregistered workers, all working around the clock to ensure enough money to pay for basic living requirements — i.e. food and water. In 2020, the Indian government passed “The Occupational Safety, Health And Working Conditions Code” in an effort to standardize worker safety, but the legislation has yet to go into effect. The pandemic’s restrictions would mean that these workers would be displaced and riddled with food insecurity, possible eviction, lack of quality healthcare options, sanitation, and general poverty.

With brands cancelling orders, migrant workers in the garment manufacturing sector are not only underpaid through a series of subcontracts, they are left completely without compensation for completed work. Migrant garment workers — namely women workers — face a dual pressure. If brands don’t have money to pay them, they are left without work for extended periods of time.

Of these migrant workers in India’s informal economy, a significant portion participate in the country’s garment manufacturing sector. Although exact numbers are difficult to trace because of the extent of subcontracting transactions undertaken through the informal economy, the ILO estimates that the garment manufacturing sector employs “68 million people indirectly in 2015-16 (Make in India statistics, 2015).” That is nearly 20 million more workers employed through an informal sector than through factory channels. Garment work as it exists in India is already subject to manipulation of labour through indirect sourcing in that workers are often not paid in full for completed work, and are forced to work in subpar conditions, often without adequate benefits. But it’s a system that, in addition to formal factory work, is dependent on “social hubs of production”, scattered throughout the country with “each cluster specialising in a particular product and having a distinctive social composition of labour.”

Essentially, because of the tight production schedule, factories usually independently outsource their contracts to informal economies, i.e, these “social hubs” of production, where they pay homeworkers and subcontractors a fraction of the amount to produce more quantity, faster. These social hubs are disproportionately dominated by a female workforce. Although the global garment manufacturing industry has seen a larger trend of feminization of the workforce, in India, women compromise only ~40% of the formal garment manufacturing sector. Rather, where they have seen to take on a majority is in these “social hubs” within the garment manufacturing informal economy. As reported by the ILO: “…there may be a small subregime of female workers in home-based work and some of the larger factories (Mezzadri, & Srivastava, 2015).” The ILO further reports in relation to these women migrant garment workers: “…often paid lower wages and lack job security, social security and freedom of association (AFWA, 2016)…Wage theft practices abound, overtime work often underpaid and social security benefits are rarely provided to the workers in the sector.”

The issue of garment worker exploitation is a women’s issue — and a humanitarian issue at that.

“One of the biggest problems workers in the informal sector face is gender-based violence. Women are harassed and abused verbally, physically, and mentally, and taken for granted. Also, wages are less and not paid on time.” And in the middle of a pandemic, this serves to paralyze migrant garment workers into poverty.

Because brands have distanced themselves from this subcontracting model, they have long denied responsibility for labour transgressions happening in the second or third levels of their supply chains. It’s been a “see no evil, do no evil” approach. But the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically exacerbated inhumane working conditions for what is a largely female base of migrant garment workers.

The issue is a twofold one: of stolen wages, and lack of transparency. With brands cancelling orders, migrant workers in the garment manufacturing sector are not only underpaid through a series of subcontracts, they are left completely without compensation for completed work. Migrant garment workers — namely women workers — face a dual pressure. If brands don’t have money to pay them, they are left without work for extended periods of time.

This is especially true in India’s second largest hub of garment manufacturing, Bengaluru, which is home to around 1,200 garment factories and 500,000 garment workers, 80% of whom are women. Among these, a large proportion have been reported to be migrant garment workers, from neighboring villages. Womens’ rights and labour rights Activist Lakshmi Bavge told Firstpost: “One of the biggest problems workers in the informal sector face is gender-based violence. Women are harassed and abused verbally, physically, and mentally, and taken for granted. Also, wages are less and not paid on time.”

In the midst of a second surge of COVID in India, migrant garment workers are forced to make the decision between continuing working for no compensation — exposing themselves to a deadly strain of the coronavirus  or to travel across state borders, exposing themselves to the virus again — to find vocational opportunities, posing yet another uncertainty in the equation.

And in the middle of a pandemic, this serves to paralyze migrant garment workers into poverty. Not only are they unable to pay for rent, for food, for basic living requirements, they are also forced to contend with what may seem like permanent job insecurity that is only aggravated by an inability to migrate for work. With the COVID-19 restrictions on travel, many migrant garment workers have been unable to go back to their native regions, leaving them stranded in garment hubs, without any way to make a steady income from garment work.. Those who have been able to go back have taken on large sums of loans supplementing their entire savings in order to pay to get across state lines to their native regions to stay with their families during a pandemic.

In the midst of a second surge of COVID in India, migrant garment workers are forced to make the decision between continuing working for no compensation — exposing themselves to a deadly strain of the coronavirus  or to travel across state borders, exposing themselves to the virus again — to find vocational opportunities, posing yet another uncertainty in the equation. It’s a gamble, but one that many migrant garment workers have been willing to make. Field investigations conducted by the Society for Labour and Development, and SEWA Bharat spoke to migrant garment workers native to the Uttar Pradesh region of India, and found that they had: “borrowed money at interest rates ranging from 5% to 18% per month.” These are essentially predatory lending rates that leave the migrant garment worker in: “fear that they will be unable to repay these loans and might end up losing their meagre lands or even their houses.”

A garment worker in Tiruppur stated, “No one came forward to help us during the COVID outbreak. No factory owners, contractors, politicians.”

The issue of transparency is clear. If brands continue to feed a system that operates on exploitative subcontracting, they are directly acting to spread COVID-19 cases across a country already suffering from the weight of inadequate medical care, and COVID deaths. Additionally, by refusing accountability for their role in subcontracting, they are responsible for creating debilitating generational poverty in communities of migrant women workers.

Brands are condemning migrant garment workers to food insecurity, rent insecurity, and job insecurity. They are turning a blind eye to outsourcing in order to avoid liability for human rights and labor abuse, but in the process violating every tenet of ethical production that they claim to be supporting. A garment worker in Tiruppur stated, “No one came forward to help us during the COVID outbreak. No factory owners, contractors, politicians.”

Garment worker lives shouldn’t be a PR stunt.

How You Can Help

To provide immediate relief to garment workers in India, Asia Floor Wage has been raising funds to provide medicine and oxygen and urgent supplies to workers.

For those wanting to help provide direct relief to garment makers in India, donations can be made to the PayUp Fashion GoFundMe. 100% of donations will go to direct relief for garment makers — and in the case of Indian garment makers, will help provide urgently needed oxygen and medical supplies.

Make a Donation — Direct Relief for Garment Makers

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